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Iraq: Governing Council Under Attack As Turnover Date Nears

The assassination of the head of the Iraqi Governing Council has focused new attention on a body that is often said to have limited powers and popularity. How significant is the U.S.-appointed council, and why was it singled out for attack by insurgents now, just weeks before it is due to be dissolved?

Prague, 18 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi and U.S. officials praised the assassinated president of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) today at a memorial ceremony in Baghdad.

The head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), L. Paul Bremer, said that Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad (a.k.a. Izz al-Din Salim) would be missed by all those seeking to build a new Iraq.

"The enemies of thought, the enemies of freedom, have taken him from his countrymen, from his family, and from his friends. And although his loss is greatest for his family and for his country, those of us in the coalition shall miss him, as well," Bremer said.

The UN's special envoy for Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, called Uthman a voice for unity.

"He had consecrated his life to the struggle for his country and for his religion, and I have only heard him speak about what all the Iraqi people have to do to build a peaceful and unified Iraq," Brahimi said.
"This is a challenge, and we accepted this challenge." -- IGC member Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir

Uthman was killed yesterday in a suicide car bombing at the entrance to the CPA's headquarters in Baghdad.

Another IGC member, Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, took over the presidency -- which rotates monthly -- within hours of the killing. He called the assassination of his predecessor a challenge that must be overcome.

"This is a challenge, and we accepted this challenge. We are more determined than yesterday to go along with the process for regaining sovereignty and rebuilding Iraq," al-Yawir said.

The killing, condemned internationally, has put the IGC again at center stage in Iraq after weeks of relative obscurity. The council's operations have been overshadowed by efforts to form the coming caretaker government that will replace it by 30 June and take the country to a first round of elections early in 2005.

Some analysts say yesterday's assassination was not intended to disrupt the increasingly unimportant function of the council itself so much as to send a warning to those thinking of participating in the coming administration. The warning is that the U.S. military -- which expects to keep forces in Iraq for several years -- cannot protect Iraqi officials.

Saad Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University, told the U.S. daily "The Christian Science Monitor" that the assassination is a "great blow" to the Governing Council but even more to the coalition forces.

He said: "It is without doubt terrifying and intimidating a lot of people. When you are working with the U.S., cooperating with the U.S., and you don't get the protection you deserve, I think a lot of people will be hesitant to participate."

U.S. officials have said they will review security for Iraqi officials in the wake of the assassination. CPA spokesman Dan Senor said yesterday: "We are constantly evaluating their security, looking at ways to improve it, as we are with our own force protection. In fact, we are in the process of establishing a professional protective service for the Iraqi government, which will be modeled, at least in concept, after the United States Secret Service and similar force protection services for governmental bodies and officials throughout the world."

Security is a top concern among Iraqi officials because Uthman is the second member of the IGC to be assassinated in less than a year. A female council member, Aquilah al-Hashimi, died in September following an ambush near her Baghdad home.

The killing of the IGC's president is meeting with a mixed reaction from Iraqis, who are widely reported to regard the U.S.-appointed council as unrepresentative of the public and some of its members as opportunists. Nearly half the council's members returned from exile after Saddam Hussein's ouster 13 months ago.

Public reaction has seen acquaintances of Uthman praise him as a moderate voice in the often divisive Iraqi political debate. Uthman was a founding member of the Shi'a religious party Al-Da'wah and was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein from 1974 to 1978 before fleeing to Kuwait and then Iran.

But some ordinary Iraqis have said they view Uthman's assassination as unconnected to their own lives.

Ahmad Jassim, a 52-year-old auto-parts dealer, told AP today that the Governing Council "never shared people's worries." He said: "Today the president of the Governing Council was killed. Someone else who tries to cash in on Iraq's problems will die tomorrow."

Due to security concerns, the homes of the most prominent council members are fortress-like compounds, with armed guards and concrete blast barriers. Some other members are reported to be staying in heavily guarded hotels that also house CPA officials and foreign civilian contractors.

The IGC's image of isolation is aggravated by reports that several of its members who are also the heads of political parties regularly send deputies to take their places at council meetings. That frees them to consolidate their own local power bases or maintain contacts with U.S. officials in Washington.

A major challenge for the coming Iraqi government will be to build the image of a representative and sovereign body that could attract broad public support.

The degree to which the coming Iraqi administration will be representative will largely be decided by the United Nations. Brahimi has proposed that the UN appoint a government of experts in consultation with Iraqi leaders and Washington.

The degree to which the new government will be sovereign depends on how much actual power Washington cedes it by 30 June.

In recent weeks, top U.S. officials have said that June's turnover should be seen as part of a process of moving toward full sovereignty.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in late April that the United States will remain in charge of military and security matters in Iraq, as well as being the country's main source of economic support.

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