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Iraq: Governing Council Set To Name Chairman

Iraq's interim Governing Council is set to name a chairman and cabinet as it seeks to assert its influence upon the U.S.-led occupation authority. RFE/RL looks at the leading contenders to be the council chairman and how much of a role the body may play in Iraq's political affairs.

Prague, 29 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council is expected to name its chairman and form a cabinet this week.

The council, which took office a little over two weeks ago (13 July), is reported to be in the final stages of selecting its top official from among its 25 members. The final stages include settling internal procedures for how to fill the top executive position.

The leading candidate for chairman is tipped to be the council's elder statesman, Adnan Pachachi. The 80-year-old Pachachi is a former Iraqi foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations who left Iraq in 1969, a year after the Ba'ath Party took power in its second coup attempt.

A member of Iraq's Sunni minority, Pachachi spent his decades of self-exile mostly in the United Arab Emirates. There he took Emiratee citizenship and was a government minister in Abu Dhabi for 20 years before retiring in the early 1990s. A secular independent, he returned to Iraq in May with the encouragement of U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's liaison with Iraqi exile groups in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion.

Pachachi is said to be a reluctant backer of U.S. military rule for Iraq and has often urged that the UN be given a larger role in the administration of the country. He has said that the goal of the Governing Council should be to "shorten the military rule," keep the territorial integrity of Iraq, and prepare for elections under a new constitution.

He said in London last week that he envisions general elections within a year and a half. Speaking at a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon, and fellow members of the Iraqi Governing Council, he said: "Now, this whole process [leading to a constitution and government elections], if we can shorten the period, will probably take about a year, but I don't think it will take more than a year and a half, in any case. Anyway, that is our hope and it is in our interests to expedite the whole process."

Pachachi, who recently founded his own political party -- the Iraqi Independent Democrats Movement -- has no mass following in Iraq. But he presents himself as a patrician whose father, uncle, and father-in-law were all prime ministers under Iraq's former monarchy and whose own secular views transcend Iraq's ethnic and religious divides.

In terms of the council chairmanship, the elderly Pachachi enjoys two clear advantages that no rival can easily claim. One is his advanced age, which suggests he would not seek to be a long-term leader and would leave an open field for general elections. The second is that he is a favorite of Arab governments in the region -- whose Sunni leaderships mostly fear the rise of a Shi'a-led Iraq. Several of Iraq's Arab neighbors have Shi'a minorities and worry they could be galvanized by Shi'as assuming power in Iraq, where the Sunnis have historically been dominant.

The other main contestant for the president's position is Ahmad Chalabi, one of the founders of the secular Iraqi National Congress (INC). Chalabi, 58 and a former banker, went into exile with his parents at age 13 and attended universities in the United States.

A member of Iraq's Shi'a majority -- which comprises some 60 percent of the population -- Chalabi sought with limited success to turn the INC into an umbrella group for all of Iraq's fractious exile organizations, including Sunni groups, Shi'a Islamic groups, and Kurds. In the process, he gained strong support from the Pentagon to be Iraq's first postwar leader and returned home at the head of the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of fighters trained by Washington to help with the invasion as military scouts and interpreters.

Chalabi and Pachachi -- along with Aqilah al-Hashimi, a diplomat and one of three women on the Governing Council -- traveled to the United Nations last week as a first Iraqi postwar delegation. There, rejecting any suggestions that the council is a policy tool for Washington, Chalabi called on the UN to recognize it as the interim Iraqi government.

"It is very important also that we get the support of the United Nations, of the regional countries in the Middle East, and also particularly of our neighbors. We need them to be more positive about what is going on in Iraq," Chalabi said.

The UN Security Council, which has repeatedly called for more power in Iraq to be turned over to Iraqis, gave the Governing Council members a warm reception. But it stopped short of recognizing them as the Iraqi government, officially welcoming them only as prominent citizens of their country.

Beyond Pachachi and Chalabi, there are no contenders considered likely to secure the chairmanship. Names that have occasionally been mentioned in the media include Aqilah al-Hashimi, who never left Iraq for exile but has little political base of her own.

Another contestant is sometimes said to be Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, brother of the leader of the Shi'a-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. But many observers say that, while SCIRI is a member of the Governing Council, the party does not want to tie itself too closely to the U.S.-appointed body by seeking its top position. Many members of SCIRI, an exile group formerly based in Iran, oppose the U.S.-led occupation although they were happy to see Saddam Hussein toppled.

The Governing Council also includes the two main Kurdish factions of Mas'ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi National Accord of Iyad Allawi, the National Democratic Party of Nasir Chadirchi, and the Shi'a Islamic Da'wah Party represented by Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, among other members.

Apart from naming a chairman and cabinet ministers and appointing members to draft a new constitution, the Governing Council has the power to review laws, sign contracts, and approve Iraq's national budget. It also can receive foreign dignitaries -- making it Iraq's diplomatic representative to the world.

U.S. President George W. Bush summed up the council's responsibilities shortly after it began work earlier this month. "Iraq has formed a new Governing Council. The council represents all of Iraq's diverse groups, and it has given responsible positions to religious authorities and to women. The council is naming ministers to establish control over Iraq's ministries and the council is drawing up a new budget. The process of drafting a constitution will soon be under way and this will prepare the way for elections," Bush said.

However, it remains unclear how much influence the council's cabinet will exert in the running of Iraq's ministries, all of which have U.S. advisers. Those details will have to be worked out in the coming months as part of what U.S. officials have called a gradual turning over of authority to Iraqis themselves.

Ultimate control over Iraq remains with U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer, who has veto power over the council's decisions. Bremer, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority, has said he will follow the council's decisions under all but the most extraordinary circumstances.