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Iraq: How Much Power Will The Governing Council Have?

Iraq's Interim Governing Council continued its work in Baghdad today, clarifying working committees and other organizational matters but postponing a decision on a leader for the body. The council marks a key step toward the eventual transfer of power to the Iraqis from the U.S.-led interim authority.

Prague, 14 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi Governing Council today held its first full session, forming three working committees and agreeing on other organizational issues.

The council, which met for the first time yesterday, was expected today to name a leader. But a council spokesman, Hoshyar Zebari, said that decision has been postponed.

The council is Iraq's first political body since the U.S.-led war in Iraq brought the collapse of the ruling regime. The 25-member group -- selected following a series of negotiations between Iraqi groups and American officials -- will help the U.S. civil administration run Iraq until the country is handed over to a democratically elected government.

The council includes representatives from a wide range of key Iraqi groups. It consists of 13 Shi'a, five ethnic Kurds, five Sunni Arabs, one Christian (Assyrian), and one Turkoman. The composition of the council is an attempt to reflect the country's diverse demographic and religious groups.

The new body also includes leaders of the main Iraqi political parties. Among them are Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Shi'a group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Mas'ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of the two leading Kurdish parties.

Nine members of the council are former emigres who returned to Iraq after years abroad; seven lived in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Lesser-known Iraqis, many of whom remained in the country during Saddam Hussein's rule, dominate the panel. Three women are included on the council, as is a human rights activist and a member of Iraq's Communist Party.

The council will have the power to approve and nominate ministers, review laws, sign contracts, and approve the national budget. It will also appoint members of a committee to draft a new constitution ahead of free elections.

However, ultimate control over the country will still be in the hands of U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer, who has veto power over the council's decisions. Bremer has said he will follow the council's decisions under all but the most extraordinary circumstances.

Adnan Pachachi, a member of the council and an Iraqi foreign minister during the pre-Hussein era in the 1960s, is widely expected to be chosen to head the group. Pachachi says he is confident the council's decisions will be respected and "differences of opinion will be managed easily through consultations."

Yesterday, officials and politicians in Baghdad praised the formation of the council and its future role.

Speaking to the council, the United Nations special representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, said Iraq is "moving back to where it rightfully belongs: at peace with itself and as a full participant in the community of nations."

Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, said the meeting was "history in the making:"

"We are witnessing history in the making. This is the first post-Saddam government. This is the first time when Iraqis are participating in a genuine way in their own political process. This is the opening of a new Iraqi state that respects human rights and considers democracy and considers international constructive relations with the rest of the world."

However, it is still unclear what concrete role the council will play in shaping the country's future.

Neil Partrick is an analyst with the Middle East and Africa section of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. He says it is clear that the powers of the council will remain insubstantial for some time, simply because there are no ministries -- except for the Oil Ministry -- for the council to control.

Partrick says the council's role for the time being may be largely advisory.

"I think the first thing it's going to be doing is working closely with Ambassador Bremer," Partrick said. "And that was early on described as an advisory role, [but is] now being re-presented as him consulting with them. I think that's really more a matter of semantics."

Partrick says the council's role may increase once Iraqi ministries are established, but it is unlikely that it will fully control areas such as defense. He also says the council will have a role in shaping Iraq's future constitution.

"The other role, which seems to be quite important for [the council], is to have some input -- it's not quite clear how -- into the planned constitutional convention. [This has], of course, for some time been in the mind of the coalition authorities [as] a much wider body, but I would imagine the governing council would play a role in trying to draw people into that."

Overall, he says the events on the ground will determine the role the council will play and that overall it is now hard to say if the council represents a "permanent model" for the future Iraqi government.

The composition of the council indicates that the U.S. civilian administration envisages an unprecedented role for Iraqi Shi'a. Shi'a Muslims make up some 60 percent of the population, but Sunni Arabs have traditionally held political power in Iraq. The current council has 13 Shi'a members and only 11 Sunnis, themselves divided between several ethnic groups, including Kurds.

Partrick says Sunni Arabs may have some difficulty accepting the shift. He says the resistance against the coalition forces is strongest in the predominant Sunni Arab areas north and west of Baghdad not only because Sunnis support Saddam Hussein but also because of "genuine suspicion" among many Sunnis that the "new Iraq" will be dominated by Shi'a politicians.

But Partrick says Shi'a council members appear determined to put Iraq's national interests first, something which may help gloss over their historic differences with Sunnis. The biggest task facing the council, he says, is to win the hearts of ordinary Iraqis.

"The difficulty, of course, is whether that governing council can command the authority of ordinary Iraqis, those who aren't engaged in armed resistance -- which of course is a great majority," he said.

The AP report reported some Iraqi civilians welcomed the council's creation. Razzak Abdul-Zahra, a 35-year-old engineer, said yesterday's opening session marked "the birth of democracy in the country."

However, others are skeptical of U.S. intentions. Bassem al-Duleimi, a 22-year-old university student, said he did not want to see "this council used by the Americans as a tool to achieve their goals in Iraq."

The reaction abroad is mixed as well. Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, today questioned what real powers the council will have. He said the body "would have gained much more power and credibility" if the members were elected instead of appointed.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the council is "a step in the right direction" and added that Moscow wants to see power transferred to the Iraqi people "as soon as possible."