Iraqi council begins quest for democracy

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis began the task of democratic reform yesterday as 25 men and women -- including religious leaders, tribesmen, teachers, the formerly imprisoned and the newly empowered -- gathered to inaugurate the Iraqi Governing Council, a homegrown administration that will work with the U.S.-led coalition.

The members of the new council, the first national body created since the fall of Saddam Hussein, trooped onto a stage in a convention center in Baghdad yesterday to give Iraqis their first view of the diverse group: three women, two men in traditional Arab dress, others in Islamic garb, and about a dozen more in business suits.

The council, led by Shiite cleric Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, marked what he called a "beautiful moment" in Iraq after years of tyranny and months of war and unrest.

In its first act, the council declared the date of the fall of Hussein's government, April 9, a national holiday -- and canceled all regime and Baath Party holidays celebrated for the past 35 years.

The collapse of the government was "due to the struggle and brave sacrifices of our people and the intervention of the coalition forces," said Bahr al-Uloum, a clergyman who returned to Baghdad from London after major combat ended.

"The establishment of this council is an expression of the national Iraqi will," he said.

The Governing Council is the interim administration called for under a United Nations resolution that, in part, guards Iraqi rights under occupation. Although not a freestanding government, the council has been promised broad powers by the coalition.

It will likely take a year for the council to form a constitutional assembly and another year before the council produces a constitution, members said. The success of the council, and its cooperation with the coalition, likely will determine how long American troops remain in Iraq.

Coalition members said they are intent on addressing the reform of Iraq's armed forces and justice system, and that the Governing Council will be responsible for "ensuring that Iraq's police and military are depoliticized" and that civilian oversight of the military begins.

Council members said yesterday that they expected to begin work today on selecting interim ministers to focus on finance, transportation and planning for the ravaged country. The council has the power to choose and oversee ministers, as well as dismiss them. The council also will name ambassadors, appoint bilateral missions and advise on foreign policy.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III retains veto power. Iraqi leaders, secular and religious, said they doubted that Bremer would use that power.

"The veto is unacceptable," said council member Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who returned to the country after 20 years in exile.

Council member Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and leader of the Iraqi Independent Democrats, also predicted that the veto power would not be an issue.

"I don't foresee where Mr. Bremer would ever cast a veto against the council," he said. "If by chance there is some difference of opinion ... it can be resolved easily with consultations."

The council gathers some of the most familiar names among Iraqi exile and opposition groups. It includes former exiles Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Iyad Allawi of the Iraq National Accord. Kurdish party leaders Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also are on the panel.

But there were some surprises, such as Sondul Chapouk, a teacher from the northern city of Kirkuk who leads a women's organization. Chapouk, after the stage presentation, seemed eager to meet reporters -- if only to alert her family to the news of her selection.

"I want my family to see me on Arab television," she said. She found out Friday that she was chosen for the council.

The council members were agreed to by a group of Iraqi political parties, former exiles and Bremer's office. The Iraqi people did not vote on the members.

The council is notable for its diversity. Under Hussein's reign, Sunni Muslims, a minority among Iraq's 22 million people, essentially ruled. The new council comprises 13 Shiites -- a long-oppressed population that accounts for about 60 percent of the population -- five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Assyrian Christian and one Turkman.

How the council will operate is murky. None of its meetings will be open to the public. Council members promised that, somehow in this country still dealing with blackouts, people would be informed of council decisions.

"We don't want to hide anything from the Iraqi people. We don't want secrets from the Iraqi people," said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party.

A brief question-and-answer period with the news media illustrated how uncomfortable members of the fledgling democracy might be when faced with questions.

Talabani criticized a question from the British Broadcasting Corp. about the council's power.

"Why do you say it's limited? It's not limited," Talabani said. "The BBC is always changing reality. ... This is a ridiculous question."

Many of the members also criticized Arab television channels for coverage that they said was pro-Hussein.

"I'm saying to Al-Jazeera, 'Stop hurting the Iraqi people,'" said Naseer Kamel al-Chaderchi, leader of the National Democratic Party.

"Most of the channels want Saddam to be back," he said. "The mass graves in Iraq show what Saddam Hussein is."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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