Prague, 14 July 2003 (RFE/RL) The Iraqi interim Governing Council held its first meeting in the Iraqi capital Baghdad yesterday. It marks a significant step towards the transfer of power to the Iraqis.
The 25-member body was selected by the U.S. civil administration after more than two months of consultations. The council will have the power to approve nominate ministers, review laws, sign contracts, and approve the national budget. It also will appoint members of a committee to draft a new constitution ahead of free elections. But final control will continue to rest with the U.S.-led civil administration.
In its first public act, the council declared 9 April, the day Saddam Hussein fell from power, as a national holiday, and cancelled six dates that were celebrated under the old regime.
The top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, addressed the panel yesterday. "Once that constitution is approved by the Iraqi people we will have it in place to hold elections for a sovereign government," he said. "And I know I speak on behalf of the coalition, [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush, and all our colleagues here in telling you that we will spare no efforts, as the secretary-general said, helping you succeed in this task as we go forward together in the months ahead."
In the days after Saddam Hussein fell in April, the Americans promised a constitutional assembly would be set up within weeks, but Bremer backed off that promise and revised the plans in May.
Iraqi political parties say that todays meeting marks a significant step towards the transfer of power. Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, said the meeting is "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," Qanbar said.
And the UN special envoy for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, said the meeting was "historic." "Today in Iraq we see the emergence of the Governing Council with a significant executive role to play. This is not the ultimate goal, for that can only come with the restoration of full sovereignty as we know. But it is a necessary and welcome move in that direction," he said.
The council includes leaders of the main Iraqi political parties. Among them are Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi; Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, brother of Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim; and the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties, Mas'ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.
However, lesser-known Iraqis, many of whom remained in the country during Husseins rule, dominate the panel. A Turkoman woman and an Assyrian Christian are present, as well as a human rights activist and a member of Iraqs Communist Party.
The council consists of 13 Shi'ites, five Kurds, five Sunnis, one Christian, and one Turkoman. The move is an attempt to reflect the countrys diverse demographics and religions. Shi'ites make up about 60 percent of Iraqs 24 million people, but they never had ruled the country where Sunnis always had the upper hand.
AP reported that in the streets, Iraqis welcomed the move. Razzak AbdulZahra, a 35-yearold engineer, said the formation of the council "is the birth of democracy in the country."
However, many remain skeptical of U. S. intentions. Bassem al-Duleimi, a 22-year-old university student, told AP he did not want to see "this council used by the Americans as a tool to achieve their goals in Iraq."