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Iraqi Delegates Pick Interim National Assembly

August 19, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Taking a halting step toward a democratic government, Iraqi political and religious leaders selected an interim national assembly Wednesday that includes representatives from many of the parties that control the current government.

The final, somewhat chaotic selection of the 100 members of the interim National Council came after a stormy four-day session overshadowed by efforts to deal with a radical cleric's occupation of a sacred mosque in Najaf.

No final vote for the assembly membership was taken, after organizers of one of the two candidate slates withdrew it at the last moment in protest against voting procedures they said were unfair.

In the end, most observers were uncertain about just who had been selected and the breakdown of party affiliations.

Although the powers of the interim National Council will be limited and much of its role will be consultative, it will be able to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve the national budget, and appoint a prime minister or president in the event that either leader dies or leaves office. The council will stay in office until elections, planned for January, are held.

Although the conference was marked by bouts of acrimony, including shouting matches between delegates, some who failed to win a place in the new assembly acknowledged that the process was an important education in democracy.

"They should have accommodated all the opinions, all the views.... They should have been clear and open with the people right from the beginning," said Hamid Kifai, a former spokesman for the U.S.-appointed and now disbanded Iraqi Governing Council. "But I am hopeful, because we are on the road to democracy. We can talk to you [journalists] now and we are not frightened to be arrested or killed or tortured. So we are free people."

Voting was to have been conducted under a complicated system of competing slates, each required to have geographical and ethnic balance. But many of the 1,300 conferees did not realize when they arrived on the first day that they were to vote for slates rather than for individuals, and that caused considerable resentment.

Organizers said the system was designed to force broad coalition-building, but it had the effect of making some delegates feel frozen out of the process.

After it became clear that the slate endorsed by parties involved in the interim government was virtually certain to get more than the 65% support required for a first-round victory, organizers of the other slate withdrew. That meant the pro-government candidates won without the delegates voting.

The makeup of the winning list was a closely held secret until shortly before the selection; the names and affiliations were read out in the noisy auditorium, but written lists were not distributed and critics complained bitterly about last-minute changes and lack of time for deliberation.

Organizers of the losing slate said some members of the ruling parties who had agreed to join their slate dropped out at the last minute and then appeared on the winning slate.

Of the 100 members in the assembly, 19 slots were reserved for former members of the Governing Council, which was disbanded when the interim government was formed in June. That left each slate with 81 names.

One former Governing Council member, Ahmad Chalabi, who is under investigation for alleged counterfeiting, was excluded from the lineup.

Though the process fell far short of the fully transparent contest many members of the conference had hoped for, there was no question that it was also a far cry from party meetings of the Saddam Hussein era, when those who were disfavored were shot or imprisoned, or from national elections, in which Hussein usually won 99% of the vote.

Above all, Iraqi and foreign analysts said, the conference was a necessary step on the way to national elections next year.

"It is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed, with all its flaws," said political scientist Hassan Bazzaz, who runs the Center for Culture and Opinion. "Now it depends on those who were elected to show whether they will really leave the past and open the doors and let many people into the political process."

Joost Hiltermann, director of the Jordan office of the think tank International Crisis Group, which also covers Iraq, expressed dismay at the decision to install a number of the same parties that have been in power since last summer, when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority created the interim Governing Council. These are the same parties that now run the executive branch of Iraq's interim government, which means they are less likely to act as a brake on the current system.

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