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Showing independence will be Iraqi government's greatest challenge

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The new Iraqi leadership named Tuesday is charged with ushering the war-ravaged nation toward security, democracy and independence.

Whether it can do that may rest largely on how well it can show that it is not merely a creature of the U.S.-led coalition.

That may be no easy thing, since the new leaders, like the Iraqi Governing Council before them, weren't elected, are backed by the Americans and are mostly unfamiliar to Iraqis.

Unlike the council, however, there are more technocrats, wider ethnic and sectarian diversity and far fewer former exiles. But the challenges are just as great.

Addressing an audience of coalition officials on Tuesday that included Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer and U.S. Iraq commander Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Iyad Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, called for better training and equipment for Iraqi security forces and better pay for Iraqi police. He promised to produce jobs for the millions of unemployed. He promised to improve such basic services as electricity production, sewage treatment and the provision of safe drinking water.

But it was not clear why the new government would have any better luck than the old at finding answers. It was a measure of the frustration surrounding the last year that the announcement of the new minister of electricity was greeted by the largest applause—and then laughter.

It was also a sign of the situation in Iraq that no member of the Iraqi public attended the ceremony announcing the new government. The audience was made up of employees of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led entity that governs Iraq, and journalists. The ceremony was punctuated by the blasts of mortar rounds or rockets landing nearby.

Sources familiar with the way the new government was picked said the process almost broke down over the weekend, as some Iraqis who were offered key positions declined, prompting 11th-hour scrambling to fill those roles.

It wasn't until Monday that "other names started appearing," said a senior coalition official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity. "People would say, `That's good, but have you thought of so-and-so?'"

The official said that cleansing the leadership of controversial council figures was paramount in gaining public support. Exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime Bush administration favorite who fell from grace after he provided faulty intelligence leading up to the war, became a liability in the struggle for credibility.

"We were looking for new faces, for people who had indigenous roots and support," the official said. " ... Of course, it's not as good as elections."

People who met with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Baghdad said the envoy, charged with picking the government, appeared frustrated that many of his recommendations were ignored and that violent clashes in April prevented him from interviewing some candidates and focus groups.

"(Brahimi) wasn't sidelined," said a top British official in the coalition. "The process was just very different from what he expected. He had to deal with security limitations."

Security and who controls military actions in Iraq is likely to be the first area where the new government will try to separate itself from the United States.

Already, Ghazi Ajil al Yawer, the Sunni tribal chief picked to be Iraq's new president, has complained that the original draft of a U.N. resolution authorizing members to assist in Iraq gives Iraqis too little control over foreign troops and its oil revenues.

The United States on Tuesday circulated a revised U.N. Security Council resolution that gives a potential end date for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and states explicitly that Iraq will control its own security forces.

But how the new Iraqi government deals with its American sponsors will be the key test of whether Iraqis will accept it as their country's ruling authority.

A woman wounded in a car bombing Tuesday provided an indication of the challenge. Sajda Naama had been attending a party when the bomb exploded near an office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. She said Iraqis would be against any new government, "even if God sent the government from the sky."


(Warren Strobel in Washington and San Jose Mercury News photographer Pauline Lubens in Baghdad contributed to this story.)


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