BAGHDAD — Seen by a distrustful public as a tool of the occupying powers, Iraq's Governing Council is coming of age on the job as it tries to define a leadership to take over from the United States and its allies.
But as the 25-member body steers Iraq toward sovereignty, promised in a mere six months, it is acting like a defiant adolescent, challenging the authority and wisdom of those who gave it life. And its bargaining position has been strengthened by the Bush administration's apparent eagerness to declare its mission accomplished before the U.S. presidential election.
No longer the passive instrument that U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III used to carve the contours of a new Iraq, the council has become increasingly assertive, demanding control of the reconstruction purse strings and the authority to supplant Bremer's vision with its own.
Council members complained that fledgling Iraqi security forces were not given the financial support or authority needed to combat insurgents. They prevailed in getting U.S. assurances that war crimes suspects -- jailed former leader Saddam Hussein first among them -- will be handed over to Iraqis for prosecution, despite pressure from some American circles to try them in an international forum.
On Monday, the council signed three mobile telephone service licenses, ignoring a Pentagon probe into allegations of corruption made by U.S. and Turkish companies that had been unsuccessful bidders.
The council began flexing its muscles last month when it undertook a review of Bremer's gubernatorial appointments to each of Iraq's 18 provinces. It deemed four of the governors unfit for office, firing one and starting procedures to replace the others. Council members are challenging such regional appointments by Bremer, insisting they are better acquainted with the needs and values of Iraqis than an American making personnel choices under deadline pressure.
Bremer wants the council to knuckle down to the task of drafting a Fundamental Law that will guide the country through 2005, by which time a constitution should have been drafted and ratified in a referendum and direct national elections scheduled to let Iraqis choose their new leaders. The council has only until Feb. 28 to deliver the complex law that will lay out electoral and governing procedures for the Transitional Assembly that will assume power from the coalition.
Instead, the council has delved into staffing the provincial governments. "The Americans can't give the right judgments about our governors. We have to get that from the people in the street," said Ahmad Shyaa Barak, a Shiite lawyer on the council.
"The provincial councils will play a big role in selecting the next leaders. It is not acceptable that they were appointed," Barak said.
"We must make the necessary changes. It's too important, regardless of the objections of the" U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
Bremer initially overruled the council's November firing of Babylon Gov. Iskandar Jawad Witwit on grounds of corruption. But Bremer let stand a second council edict on Dec. 9 dismissing Witwit for membership in the outlawed Baath Party.
The coalition apparently calculated that to oppose the council would contradict the aims of the "de-Baathification" process as well as reinforce an impression among many Iraqis that the council is a puppet of the occupying powers. However, instead of placating the council, the battle emboldened it to insist on replacing other officials.
"Some of those appointed are not working out. They were bad choices," argued Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd and a political independent. "After the war, things were done in a hurry. We have to make corrections before the next elections."
Coalition officials are reluctant to publicly discuss what remains a behind-the-scenes clash over the appointments. One said only that probing regional councils would be time-consuming, and in the absence of reliable public opinion research, it would be difficult to accurately gauge any interim governor's real standing with constituents.
Some council members suspect the coalition authority is protecting a few malleable governors so they can place figures in the next executive who otherwise might be unable to garner local support. For example, the Pentagon's favorite ally on the council, Ahmad Chalabi, lived outside Iraq for 35 years and has no support base in the country.
Initially in lock step with Bremer on the shape of a future Iraq, the council has increasingly asserted its autonomy on financial and judicial affairs as well as appointments.
The council has won assurances that Hussein will be turned over to Iraqi custody to face trial here on war crimes. Council members have also dismissed allegations that the U.S. occupiers will wield a heavy hand in shaping the newly created Iraqi war crimes tribunal.