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Iraq: Governing Council Finds Voice Amid Unrest

  • Mark Baker --> The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council appears to have found a voice in trying to defuse tensions between the United States and insurgencies in the central and southern parts of the country. Council representatives are taking part in efforts in both Al-Fallujah and Al-Najaf to restore calm amid the worst unrest since the end of the Iraq war. For the United States, the intervention could not have come at a better time, as support for the occupation appears to be declining. The council itself -- by demonstrating its worth -- may also be trying to guarantee its survival.

Prague, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council is playing an active role in trying to calm Iraq's twin insurgencies against the U.S.-led occupation.

Representatives of the council are reportedly working closely with Sunni authorities in the central town of Al-Fallujah to end clashes there between insurgents and the U.S. military that have claimed hundreds of lives.

In the south, the council is said to be brokering a deal between forces loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and moderate Shi'a elements to end a weeklong uprising that saw al-Sadr's militia take several Shi'a towns. The uprising was the strongest show of resistance to the U.S.-led occupation since the end of the war.

The 25-member council -- which until now was widely viewed as a docile supporter of the United States -- has been uncharacteristically harsh in its recent criticism of the U.S.-led coalition and bold in its negotiation efforts.

Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi set the tone for the council on 10 April, accusing the United States of conducting what he called an "illegal" and "unacceptable" offensive in Al-Fallujah.

"We denounced the military operations carried out by the American forces [in Al-Fallujah] because in effect it is [inflicting] collective punishment on the residents of Al-Fallujah," Pachachi said.

Pachachi until now had been largely supportive of the U.S. occupation. But he was clearly angered by initial reports that American military action to avenge the killings of four U.S. contract workers had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Iraqis, including many civilians.

The U.S. military says those initial casualty reports are exaggerated, but the situation on the ground remains unclear.

Members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, represented on the Governing Council, appear to be making headway in talks. A fragile cease-fire in place has been extended and a deal is under way to return some Iraqi police to duty in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. The deal, however, falls short of U.S. demands that insurgents turn over those responsible for killing the four contractors.

The situation is similar in the south, where council representatives are taking part in discussions to convince radical Shi'a cleric al-Sadr to abandon his insurrection and disarm his militia. Governing Council member Ezzedine Salim confirmed the council's involvement this week in a conversation with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq.

"[The Governing Council] sent a delegation to Al-Najaf to talk with religious scholars, Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr and his office. And these first thoughts [after those meetings] regarding the solution to the crisis were then given to the top civil administrator in Iraq, [L. Paul] Bremer. And the discussion between the group [of council members] and Mr. Bremer would hopefully lead to finding a way to solve the crisis," Salim said.

Latest reports say that effort is also making progress. Participants are said to be close to a deal that would see al-Sadr's militia disarm in exchange for the cleric, at some point, turning himself in to Iraqi authorities.

It's unclear what's driving council members to take such an active role and break with their traditional policy of siding with the United States.

Part of the reason, at least, is the anger felt by many council members at U.S. actions. Reports say the council was not informed ahead of last week's military operation in Al-Fallujah.

The council may also have at least one eye on the calendar and concern for its own survival after the 30 June handover of Iraqi sovereignty by the United States.

On that day, the Iraqi interim constitution comes into effect. The document gives the council a relatively important role in forming a fully sovereign interim government, but says once the government is in place, the council's work "comes to an end."

UN special Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi endorsed that same wording yesterday, saying that while some council members might have a role in a future government, the council itself will be scrapped.

"According to both the 15th of November 2003 agreement and the transitional administration law [the interim constitution], the Governing Council along with the [U.S.-led] CPA [Coalition Transitional Authority] will cease to exist on the 30th of June 2004," Brahimi said.

Council members might be hoping a visible and positive mediation effort will underscore their continued usefulness.