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The Conflict in Iraq

New Iraq Government Gets Off to a Sluggish Start

Ministers say U.S. bears responsibility for failure or success. Premier meets with Cabinet.

June 03, 2004|Laura King and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Ayham Sameraei may have drawn the most unenviable job in the new Iraqi caretaker government. The 52-year-old U.S.-educated engineer is the minister of electricity, charged with getting Iraq's feeble power grid functioning smoothly -- preferably before summer attains the full strength of its scorching heat.

But Sameraei -- like many of the newly minted Iraqi ministers who took up or resumed their duties Wednesday, a day after the interim government was appointed -- says it is the American occupiers who bear the responsibility for his success or failure.

"Everyone says our country can't have security without electricity," he said, leaning back in a big chair in his office in the capital's heavily guarded Ministry of Oil complex. "Well, that's true. But if you don't have security, you can't generate electricity. And the Americans must provide that."

The government lineup, unveiled less than a month before a formal hand-over of still-undetermined powers to the Iraqis, is meant to instill a sense among Iraqis that the country is at last taking charge of its own destiny.

The U.N. envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, called on Iraqis on Wednesday to accept and support the new government, but he said tangible improvement of their daily lot would be crucial.

"This government will have its work cut out for it," Brahimi told reporters. The Iraqi people, he said, "will make up their minds based upon what the government says and does in the next few months.... It won't be easy to prove the skeptics wrong."

Some of those skeptics include those who inhabit the smoke-filled halls of Iraqi ministries. To them, the interim government is as emblematic of old problems as of new beginnings.

"I told the Americans, 'You are giving us a hell and telling us to make it a heaven,' " said Sameraei, who like eight of the other newly appointed ministers has already served in his temporary post for nearly nine months.

Sameraei spent his first day as part of the new government in typical fashion -- monitoring the power grid's output of megawatts, which as usual crept upward and then fell frustratingly back, triggering widespread power cuts that left tens of thousands of angry citizens sweltering in the dark. Sameraei called it a relatively good day on the electric front: three hours on, three hours off.

The first day of the interim government's stewardship was low-key. Neither the new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, nor any of his 32 ministers made public appearances.

Some of the ministers had still not appeared at their offices by midday. And with the heat of summer setting in and little air-conditioning to be had, most ministry workers kept to seasonal Iraqi custom and left their desks by early afternoon.

Allawi did meet with his Cabinet for the first time Wednesday, in the chambers of the now-dissolved U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, and told the ministers that ruling Iraq "is our responsibility now."

Security concerns were a prime topic of the meeting, according to officials present. Still unresolved, Allawi said, is the future status of U.S. forces in Iraq, which will be addressed in a U.N. resolution now under debate.

"We hope it will be to the best interests of the Iraqi people, to Iraq and to the sovereignty of Iraq," Allawi said.

Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister who spent more than a month refereeing complex negotiations among the United States, the United Nations and the Governing Council, was the only key player in the creation of the new government to face the public Wednesday.

During a briefing in Baghdad, Brahimi, whose top choices for prime minister and president did not end up in power, expressed satisfaction with the process but also hinted at some disappointment.

"I believe this government is the best we can reach right now," he said. "The whole slate is a compromise."

He said the U.S. had dominated the process. Speaking of L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, Brahimi said: "I'm sure he doesn't mind me saying that Bremer is the dictator of Iraq. He has the money. He has the signatures. Nothing happens without his agreement in this country."

Brahimi is said to have supported nuclear scientist Hussein Shahristani for the post of prime minister and Adnan Pachachi, a Governing Council member, for president. Those posts went to Allawi, a council member with ties to the CIA, and Ghazi Ajil Yawer, who was supported by fellow council members.

Brahimi declined to say whom he had endorsed and dodged questions about whether he was completely satisfied with the choices.

President Bush on Tuesday called the naming of the government "a hopeful day for the Iraqi people and the American people."

But some dissatisfaction was voiced Wednesday in other quarters. The most influential Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, criticized the "mechanisms of dialogue" used in picking the Cabinet lineup.

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