Baghdad, 1 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- One hundred members of Iraq's new National Council today began work at Baghdad's Convention Center -- but security was first and foremost on everyone's mind.
Five mortar rounds landed less than 200 meters from conference halls, located inside the heavily protected Green Zone, which also houses Iraq's interim government and the U.S. Embassy.
The blast shook the conference building and prompted security officers to order people away from the windows. One Iraqi was reported injured. Two other large explosions could be heard at a slightly greater distance some 30 minutes later.
The 100 members of the new legislative assembly were chosen by 1,000 participants at last month's National Conference. Representatives of the Iraqi president and prime minister attended today's opening ceremonies, as did members of the U.S. and British embassies.
According to a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, of the 100 National Council members, 45 are Shi'a Muslims, 44 are Sunni Muslims, and two are Assyrian Christians. Fifty-five are labeled by U.S. officials as secularists, 22 as Shi'a Islamists, and seven as Sunni Islamists. Officials admit these are broad categorizations and are somewhat subjective.
The new parliament's opening session is expected to last four days, during which the members are expected to choose a president, two vice presidents, approve a 98-point administrative law, and form seven standing committees to discuss issues related to politics, economics, security, health and social welfare, women, reform, and education and culture.
Qasim Dawud, minister of state for security affairs, representing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, told the gathering the government will continue to do its best to improve the economic and political situation in the country. He also reaffirmed that the government will abide by the Transitional Administrative Law that will grant the parliament rights to question the prime minister and the ministers. "We reaffirm an important point, and that is that the legitimacy of all political institutions during the transition period is the administrative law of transitional government that will lead the transitional government to success," he said.
A surprising presence among the members today was that of Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress. The government has issued an arrest warrant for Chalabi, an influential and moderate Shi'a Muslim who once enjoyed strong ties with the U.S. administration, on charges of possessing counterfeit money. He denies the charges and has said political opponents are trying to smear his reputation.
Chalabi's convoy came under fire this morning as he and his bodyguards were returning from Al-Najaf to Baghdad. He told reporters the attack occurred near Latifiyah, about a 45-minute drive south of Baghdad. That portion of the road south from Baghdad is a haven for armed men who have attacked military and civilian convoys a number of times in the past months.
Chalabi said two of his bodyguards were wounded, one seriously. Chalabi himself was not harmed.
Members of the new parliament, 19 of whom are members of the now-dissolved Governing Council, have many difficult tasks to tackle and some have expressed only mild confidence that they can perform all their duties before national elections take place by next January.
Seyyed Husayn al-Sadr, a prominent moderate Shi'ite and a member of the new parliament, said he predicted neither success nor failure. "In general, I am an optimist, but I don't want to issue a general opinion on the national assembly or its meetings," he said. "From the point of being an optimist and believing in the brother and sister members of the Iraqi national assembly, I ask the almighty to succeed us all."
Others say what is important is that the parliament begins its work, so that its democratic lessons can serve to educate Iraqis about the progress toward democracy.For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".