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Hard line on caucuses reflects broad suspicion of governing council

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's top Shiite Muslim leader now says that American plans for a caucus-based political system are illegitimate because the idea for them came from another illegitimate body: the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

The harder line reflects the widespread Iraqi view that the council has been an abject failure, without legitimacy beyond the American compound where its members work. Many in Iraq see the governing council as a lesson in what'll happen without direct elections: rule over Iraq by outsiders who do not have the country's best interest at heart. To complicate matters, many on the council are angling to have the body continue as a non-elected senate, a scenario almost certain to trigger widespread unrest.

In a statement read to thousands of worshippers on Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani said of the American governance plan: "It is illegitimate because that decision took place between the coalition forces and the governing council, and they are an unelected body ... The coalition forces are afraid to have direct elections because maybe someone will be in power that they don't agree with."

A lot of Iraqis share that view—that Washington would rather continue working with the governing council's pro-American former exiles than roll the dice with open elections.

"If the Americans refuse to give us elections, and begin making appointments, they will bring us another Saddam," warned Noor Aldin Alwa'adh, a spokesman for Sistani's Baghdad office.

Many in the Hawza, a religious body of scholars that issues fatwahs, or edicts to be followed as law, share this pessimism.

"The people of Iraq suffered for 30 years under a terrible regime. It is natural for them to be afraid of the future," said Ali al Sibziwary a senior member of the Hawza.

"I am afraid that the Americans, absent direct elections, will give the power to such a regime," he said. "It would be just like the governing council—selected by the Americans."

Governing council members rarely make public appearances. They drive around Baghdad in armored SUVs, guarded by swarms of men carrying machine guns.

It is a striking contrast to Sistani, whose main office in Najaf is in an alleyway that turns off a crowded market street with cheap perfume stands and butcher shops. His security consists of a few men who spend their time chatting with passers-by and teasing local children who play marbles in the dirt.

The United States is currently planning to usher in a new Iraqi government by July 1 after a complex series of nationwide caucuses that would culminate in a national assembly. As that process is finalized, under the plan, the governing council and the American coalition authority would be dissolved.

But several members would rather keep their council intact after the July 1 date.

One of them, Samir Mahmood Sumaidy, said that he and others have argued that the body should continue "as an upper house, like a Senate, that would guarantee continuity."

Sadoun al Dulame, the director of an independent think tank in Baghdad and a frequent consultant with many of the council members, said that he's heard also of a push to expand the governing council and have it take the place of the planned national assembly altogether.

Part of Washington's overriding concern is that an open election might put in office a Shiite Muslim cleric, or a politician beholden to one, who would steer Iraq toward a theocratic state like its neighbor to the east, Iran. Shiite Muslims are though to make up some 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. They are expected to vote more or less as a bloc, unlike Sunni Muslims, whose concerns could be split by ethnic considerations, such as a possible Kurdish state to the north.

Despite such concerns, Dulame is not a supporter of extending the governing council's tenure beyond July.

"If the Americans impose it on the Iraqis, they are going to destroy our dreams of a new Iraq," Dulame said.

The governing council member bearing the heaviest scorn is Ahmad Chalabi, a mathematics professor and businessman with close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. U.S. forces flew Chalabi to Iraq during the war, and the administration's post-war plans presumed Iraqis would embrace Chalabi as a leader.

It turned out that most Iraqis consider Chalabi, who was once convicted in absentia of fraud in Jordan, a crook and a traitor. He still enjoys the Bush administration's favor, however. During Bush's State of the Union address last week, Chalabi sat with the president's wife.

Chalabi surprised many on Friday when he declared that "I believe elections are possible. Do not seek to find a reason why elections are not possible. Seek to make them possible and they will be possible."

Dulame said he suspected that Chalabi was just positioning himself for favor from Sistani.

"I know Chalabi very well and he would give promises to the devil if it got him the right political position," Dulame said.

Chalabi continues to deny any interest in a future political role in Iraq, but a spokesman, Entifadh Qanbar, confirmed earlier this month that Chalabi is among those favoring continuation of the governing council.

Baghdad University political science professor Hassan Mohammad al Any said that Chalabi has become a symbol for popular discontent with the governing council.

In an October poll by Dulame's Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies, 1,620 Iraqis across the nation were given a list of council members and asked whether they had favorable or unfavorable impressions of them. Only four of the 25 members rated a favorable mention more than 40 percent of the time—and Chalabi was not among them.

An American spokesman said that as far as the coalition is concerned, the council would be dissolved on June 30.

Qanbar, Chalabi's spokesman, scowled when he heard that.

"The Americans are not part of this discussion; it is a conversation amongst governing council members," he said, sitting at a table in a Baghdad country club, his pinstripe suit neatly pressed and his hair slicked back. Two young men holding AK-47 rifles flanked him.

The future, Qanbar said, belongs to Iraqis and to those willing to lead them.


(Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.