Earlier today in Baghdad, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Iraq, announced that he had selected Iyad Allawi to be Iraq's interim prime minister. Allawi is a Shi'a Muslim and former exile who is backed by the United States and has connections to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The largely ceremonial post of president is going to Ghazi al-Yawir, a powerful Sunni Muslim leader who has been critical of the U.S.-led occupation of his country. Also chosen today were two vice presidents and 33 cabinet ministers.
Immediately after the announcements, the Iraqi Governing Council, which was set up by the United States, decided to dissolve itself and the interim government took its place. The Coalition Provisional Authority, which is run by Washington, will continue to administer Iraq until the 30 June handover of power. Elections for a national legislature and a new prime minister are still scheduled to be held before the end of January, 2005.
Although the interim government was chosen by the United Nations, there was some question that its prime minister has ties that are too close to the United States and thus will be a puppet of the Bush administration. Bush denied this: "I had no role [in selecting Iraqi interim government members]. I mean, occasionally somebody said this person may be interested or that, but I had no role in picking. Zero."
Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, made the same point in an earlier meeting with reporters, saying the interim government is not made up of what she called "America's puppets."
Both Rice and Bush praised the men chosen by Brahimi. Bush called them talented and representative of all Iraq. Rice said the list of names was "terrific."
In Baghdad, Allawi made it clear that he believes U.S. and other coalition forces should remain in Iraq to provide security. "We the Iraqis, like other peoples of the world, do not want to continue to be under occupation," he said. "At the same we look forward to actively working together against the terrorist threats we face under the present circumstances, and we will need the participation of multinational forces to help us defeat the enemies of Iraq who don't want us to have stability, prosperity and peace."
This again focused attention on the concern about the role of the U.S.-led occupation forces and how much power the interim Iraqi government will have in limiting their operations. The United States has repeatedly said the Iraqi interim government will have full sovereignty, and that coalition troops will leave if asked to do so. But Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others have said repeatedly that they doubt the Iraqis will want the foreign forces to leave -- at least for the immediate future.
But Rice said some questions remain about operational authority while these forces remain in Iraq. "The Iraqis will of course have control of their own forces," she said. "We want them to have full sovereignty. Now when it comes to the operations of the multinational force, I think we will have discussions with the now-empowered Iraqi government about how this will proceed."
Bush, Rice, Brahimi, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan all praised the choice of the interim government as a new beginning for Iraq after three decades of dictatorship, wars, and occupation.
But Rice said everyone must be mindful that the choice of Allawi and al-Yawir and the new Iraqi cabinet is just that -- only a beginning. "This is an interim government. This is not the final stage in the Iraqi political transition," she said. "There will be elections either at the end of the year or at the beginning of next year, and the most important thing that this government will be doing is to try to create the conditions under which those elections can take place."