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In Iraq, many have doubts about interim legislature

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sadeq al Musawi has harsh words for Iraq's newly formed interim legislature, of which he's a member

"This assembly is not democracy. We have no real power. It is just political play for us to enjoy," said al Musawi, a member of the Constitutional Monarchy party. "It is a game—and not a good game."

The 100-member assembly, set up in August at a national political conference, won't hold its first policy session until Sunday. But many in Iraq already see it as little better than the widely despised U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which dissolved itself in June.

"They are two faces of the same coin," said Abdul Haleem Salem, a 26-year-old from Kut who was in Baghdad on a religious pilgrimage. "This assembly doesn't represent the Iraqi people, which makes it a failure."

Indeed, 19 of the assembly's members are former Governing Council members, and many of the remaining 81 belong to the five political parties that already control Iraq's executive branch.

Yet it's the only political representation Iraqis have, at least until national elections are held. Those are scheduled to take place before the end of January, but continued violence across the country has some Iraqi officials talking about postponing the vote.

That would extend the strong hold that Iraq's leading parties have on the political process. Despite sharp ideological differences, the parties have cooperated extensively to "remain dominant as a new government unfolds," said a senior American diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In June, for example, when the interim assembly members were chosen, the parties pooled their candidates to produce a dominating slate that trounced independents and smaller parties, who had hoped to finally gain a voice in the government through the new legislature.

Although some observers applauded the move as democratic politics in action, others considered it bad for a country where less than 10 percent of the population belongs to a political party.

"That means just 10 percent controls the whole of Iraqi life: politically, economically and so on," said Sadoun al Dulame, the executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "Our silent majority is 90 percent."

The assembly's chairman, Fouad Masoum, said the assembly would try to earn the trust of unaffiliated Iraqis.

But not everyone could be satisfied, he said.

"It's not necessary that all groups accept the assembly," said Masoum, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "This is a political issue."

After elections, the assembly will expand to 275 members and be charged with robust parliamentarian powers.

Until then, the assembly's authority is limited to questioning government ministers and restricted veto power over some government decisions, provided it can muster a two-thirds majority.

Nonetheless, al Musawi and other Iraqi officials said the assembly represented a step toward true representative democracy.

"The parties work for the parties, but the negotiations are a healthy thing," said former Governing Council member Salama al Khafajie, who's now an independent member of the interim assembly.

"It encourages the Iraqi people that democracy is coming," said Ali al Adeb, an assembly representative of the influential Islamic Dawa Party.

The American diplomat said that even though the large parties controlled the assembly, it still provided independents and members of smaller parties with a forum to "develop a bit of a reputation for themselves."

But that could prove difficult if the Iraqi media continue to ignore the assembly. Most Iraqis are also too preoccupied with questions of safety and basic necessities to follow the assembly's work.

"Iraqis are suffering from a lot of problems—violence, no electricity. Do you really think the interim national assembly has the ability to deal with those problems?" asked al Dulame. "I don't. It has no significance to Iraqis. No significance at all."

That assessment was only partly borne out in interviews with residents of Baghdad's Karrada district Friday. While some dismissed the assembly, others adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

"They didn't ask me or anyone else on this street about who should be in the assembly," said Esam Yousif, 45, a shopkeeper in the Karrada district. "The country is in total chaos because of the government's decisions, and these are the people who chose this assembly."

But two blocks to the south, Uday Kasim, 27, said it was too soon to judge the assembly.

"We're still waiting to see if it will satisfy us," said Kasim, a butcher. "We are all hoping it will do something good, because life is getting worse day by day in Iraq."


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