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Iraqi Council's Most Pressing Task: Legitimacy

The U.S. wants the new governing body to take on more power, and members want to oblige to speed the foreigners' exit. But hurdles persist.

August 28, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — They don't know their term of office, their resources, their compensation or their clout.

About the only thing the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council seem sure of is that American occupiers are suddenly eager to hand them a share of responsibility -- some would say blame -- for running a country suspended in a dangerous vacuum.

Appointed by the U.S. six weeks ago and viewed by some Iraqis as merely putting a local face on the occupation, the council now is being looked to by U.S. officials as the best hope for getting the idle machinery of government and industry moving.

As the U.S.-led administration of Iraq scrambles to defend against terrorism and resistance, council members are being encouraged to speed up the process of building an Iraqi government and to show the flag abroad. The goal is to let doubters see them not as U.S. instruments but midwives of the next sovereign Iraq.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi government -- An Aug. 28 article in Section A on the Iraqi Governing Council said some officials in the new government thought that banning all members of the former ruling Baath Party from positions of authority had deprived the leadership of needed expertise. The article quoted Governing Council administrative secretary Ahmad Mukhtar as saying, "It's like trying to get a clock ticking again after taking out some of its parts." Mukhtar says he was referring to the omission of experienced technocrats from the new leadership, not to former Baath Party members.

"The Americans would like to see fewer of their troops here," council member Adnan Pachachi, a gray eminence and a foreign minister before Saddam Hussein's rule, said of the U.S. push to escalate the hand-over. "Iraq is a hot potato. It's not getting cooler, and [U.S. presidential] elections are in 14 months."

Seizing on the opportunity to help the U.S. craft an exit strategy, the council has become more assertive, vowing to get its governmental act together swiftly so the unwelcome foreign rulers can leave.

"We call things by their name, despite the rhetoric. Iraq is under occupation," the council's current chief, Ibrahim Jafari of the Islamic Dawa Party, said Wednesday. "We want to do all we can to reduce the time period for ending the occupation, to show the Iraqi people we can end this quickly."

Pachachi, 80, the oldest and arguably the most respected council member, said the U.S.-led authority has lately been "much more forthcoming" in helping the council acquire legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi public.

It was at the Americans' suggestion that Pachachi and others traveled to the United Nations and Arab states during the last two weeks. Iraqi media have begun reporting on the council, sometimes casting the group as more than a facade for foreign occupation. The public, at best, has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward its evolving leadership, while many "see it as a toy in the hands of the coalition," said journalist Nasir Timimi of the Arrehab daily.

Despite the shift in U.S. expectations, the council faces major challenges in morphing from symbol to substance. Six weeks have gone by with little to show because many members have gone on vacation or traveled abroad. The council must choose a Cabinet, confront daunting work in overseeing the drafting of a new constitution and then organize free elections.

How the Cabinet will function remains vague, as no individual has emerged as a natural leader. Jafari said there were no plans to designate a prime minister who would preside over the body.

Money is another contentious matter. The coalition still controls the purse strings, depriving the council of opportunities to make populist gestures that might convince more Iraqis it is truly in charge and that life will get better. Council members say there are plans to improve food rations and pay pensions and welfare once a Cabinet is seated and the government budget is in its hands.

The members themselves aren't being paid yet. Salaries, to be set by the council but under self-imposed limits, await the resuscitation of the Finance Ministry, which in turn awaits the council's appointment of a finance minister. As with all ministries awaiting new life in Iraq, the official in charge will then hire a dozen department heads, who will choose other staff members from among Hussein-era holdovers and fresh applicants.

Council members have been saying for weeks that they are on the verge of announcing their Cabinet appointments and had set today as their deadline. But discussions with several of them revealed nagging problems delaying the announcement, including resistance by chief U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III to expanding the Cabinet -- to 25 posts from the 21 under the former government -- adding portfolios for environment, immigration and human rights, and splitting the ministry for transportation and telecommunications in two.

There also are clashes among the ethnically and politically diverse council, as some members accuse others of trying to grab power. Shiite Muslims, a majority in the country, enjoy a slight majority of 13 on the council. The remaining positions are held by Sunni Muslims, ethnic Kurds, a Turkmen, a Christian and four members of mixed ethnicity.

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