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In a Key Step on a Long Road to a New Iraq, Cabinet Assumes Office

'This is one of my happiest days,' an official says. Next up: a constitutional assembly.

September 04, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Cabinet members took the oath of office Wednesday, inaugurating a transition from U.S. to Iraqi rule and freeing Iraq's Governing Council to tackle the next big challenge: convening a constitutional assembly to define a new national vision.

Seventeen of the 25 Cabinet members made it to the high-security ceremony at Baghdad's Convention Center. The other eight were unable to break off foreign travel or get to the capital just two days after they were appointed.

Still, the gathering inside a half-mile circumference of sandbags, barbed wire, sharpshooters and explosives-sniffing dogs was cause for celebration.

"This is one of my happiest days," effused the Governing Council secretary-general, Muh- yi K. Alkateeb, noting that the Cabinet is both ethnically diverse and predominantly Western educated. "Now we have a government of ministers. We do not have to fear."

It took the council seven weeks to pick the Cabinet, but that process is likely to seem lightning fast in comparison with the long slog expected before a constitution is written and approved by referendum.

That stretch of time, which is needed to work through legal, social and historical thickets, could be disrupted by recurring acts of terrorism and sabotage.

Even the shortest prognosis of six months to appoint a constitutional convention and draft the document presupposes relative stability to allow the new ministers to restore basic functions such as voter registration and provision of identification documents.

Security is the overriding concern in Iraq, especially in the wake of three bombings in the past month that struck at the Jordanian Embassy and United Nations headquarters here and on Friday killed a prominent cleric and more than 100 others in the holy city of Najaf.

In Babylon, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force handed over control of a key sector of Iraqi territory to a 21-nation division under Polish command. The transfer of authority over south-central Iraq, including Najaf, makes Poland the third country to accept occupational responsibility along with the United States and Britain.

At the swearing-in ceremony, security forces easily outnumbered officials and their guests. All participants went through at least five physical searches and metal detectors, and the cavernous hall was evacuated for one final screening 10 minutes before the event was to start.

The path to writing and approving a constitution threatens to be littered with the same obstacles that delayed naming the ministers. Many Iraqis doubt the legitimacy of the Cabinet and a recently appointed Constitutional Preparatory Committee because both bodies emerged from the Governing Council, which was selected by the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority.

How and when delegates are chosen for a planned constitutional congress next year is a matter of debate. Although U.S. occupation officials insist that the constitution will be an Iraqi project, they have been encouraging the Governing Council to take the swiftest path -- an appointed rather than elected assembly -- to choose a drafting panel and guide its work.

Much of that pressure, said one participant in the constitutional process, is being applied by the Bush administration, which wants visible progress toward democracy in Iraq by the November 2004 presidential election.

Most members of the preparatory committee acknowledge that electing the constitutional congress would put a popular stamp on the process. But appointing committee members well-versed in legal and international affairs would lend expertise to the process, and probably speed it up, Alkateeb said.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, issued an edict to followers last month to insist on a national election to select delegates to the convention. Shiites account for 60% of Iraq's 25 million people, and his word carries much weight with that branch of Islam.

Others, such as Kurdish judge and Governing Council member Dara Nooreddine, say circumstances preclude the time-consuming option of electing delegates. An estimated 4 million Iraqis are still living in exile and probably would encounter difficulties registering to vote for convention delegates.

A national census would also be needed to allot constitutional convention delegates by region or ethnic group -- an undertaking that itself would take months after the ministries, most starting from scratch, are fully functioning.

"My view is that appointing delegates would be better and faster," Nooreddine said.

U.S. officials with the occupational authority insist that writing the constitution will be left to Iraqis. "The constitution is a matter for the Iraqi people to discuss, not the coalition," said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator. "The constitution should be written by the Iraqi people and for the Iraqi people, then subjected to an approval process through a referendum."

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