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Iraq: Governing Council Opts For Rotating Chairmanship

Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council has opted for a chairmanship that will rotate among nine of its 25 members. Under the formula, each member will hold office for just one month before handing off power to another chairman. RFE/RL spoke with one of the council members about why it opted for such a diffuse leadership and the advantages and disadvantages of the arrangement.

Prague, 31 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's new Governing Council has elected its first chairman, ending two weeks of internal negotiations over how to share power among its members.

The 25-member council chose a Shi'a religious party leader, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, to be its first chairman. Ja'fari, a medical doctor who is the spokesman of the Shi'a Al-Da'wah party, will lead the council for one month before handing off to another chairman.

Ja'fari's election comes after the Governing Council decided earlier this week to adopt a rotating chairmanship to be shared among nine members. He will be followed as chairman by Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi.

RFE/RL spoke today with one of the council members, Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i, to learn more about why the body opted for a rotating chairmanship. Al-Rubay'i is an independent human rights activist and member of the British Royal Doctor's College. He also authored the Declaration of the Shi'ites in Iraq, a joint statement by many prominent Shi'a outlining their vision for a postwar democratic Iraq.

Al-Rubay'i says the council chose a rotating chairmanship to balance the interests of a membership that represents a wide diversity of political, religious, and ethnic concerns. The council comprises former exiled and domestic leaders of both secular and religious groups drawn from Iraq's three major communities -- the Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds -- among others.

"One of the options we considered is rotating between [all] the 25 [council members]. And this on a weekly basis. But this was not going to be an effective [leadership], if you like. The other option is one person, and that one person was going to be very difficult. People put forward the suggestion of the eldest, and others said the eldest might not necessarily be the wisest," al-Rubay'i said.

The council member said that finally the group opted for a rotating monthly chairmanship with powers limited mostly to administrative functions. He says that arrangement satisfied the majority of the council by ensuring that all key decisions will be reserved for votes by all 25 of its members.

Al-Rubay'i said the role of the chairman will mostly be to convene council meetings and organize their agendas. He described the functions of the chairman as "managerial" rather than executive.

"[Some] people have jumped to the conclusion that [the council chairman] is going to replace Saddam Hussein, or he is going to be [Iraq's] next prime minister or next president. This is not true. We needed somebody, first, as a symbolic gesture of unity; second, to chair the meeting and organize the items in the agenda and invite people to the meeting -- basically a sort of managerial job rather than a proper chairmanship and presidency," al-Rubay'i said.

Some analysts say the decision to have a rotating chairmanship solves power-sharing disputes but at the cost of a strong and consistent leadership within the council to set and maintain policies. Whether the council emerges as a strong decision-making body without such executive leadership will have to be judged in the months ahead.

However, the decision to have a diffuse leadership also may have been dictated by the fact that some groups on the council may not want to identify themselves too closely with the U.S.-appointed body, even as they participate in its decisions.

Such groups could include the best-organized Shi'a party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), formerly in exile in Iran. Members of the group welcomed Hussein's overthrow, but many are reported to be uncomfortable with the continuing U.S.-led occupation. That could make them reluctant to see their council representative -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is one of the nine rotating chairmen -- hold any long-term role that would appear to tie him further to Washington.

The others who will share the rotating presidency are Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Mas'ud Barzani; Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord; Muhsin Abd al-Hamid of the Iraqi Islamic Party; Shi'a scholar Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum; and former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi.

Al-Rubay'i said one of the principal challenges for the council in the weeks ahead is appointing a cabinet of ministers. The ministers would head Iraq's various government departments, all of which also have U.S. advisers.

He says the council will have to decide whether to fill the cabinet positions from among its own 25 members or go outside the council to appoint technocrats. He says there is general support for choosing technocrats, but some argue that giving the cabinet portfolios to council members is necessary to strengthen the council's own authority as an interim government.

Another key task is choosing a committee to map out the process for writing a new Iraqi constitution -- including whether to hold a constitutional convention and whether to elect or select the delegates.

But Al-Rubay'i said the most pressing challenge for the Governing Council -- which was inaugurated on 13 July -- remains Iraq's security situation and its efforts to reconstitute its police force.

"There is a constant item in our agenda every day called Security. We have just allocated $200 million to train 65,000 to 70,000 police. We are going to set up three police academies -- one in the north, one in the middle and one in the south. And we are going to bring [some] 6,500 trainers from Europe and America to train our people, [and we are] also sending our policemen to European centers and American centers in Europe to train, as well, on proper policing with an international standard," al-Rubay'i said.

He said 32,000 policemen are already partly trained and back on duty as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has rehired officers after screening them for ties to the previous regime. Their further training -- and that of the new recruits -- will emphasize respect for human rights and an end to the corruption that was endemic to the police force in the Saddam Hussein era.

Some of the Governing Council's other responsibilities include analyzing and approving the national budget, representing Iraq abroad, and signing contracts. The council recently approved a CPA-drafted budget of $6 billion for the second half of 2003. Work on the budget for 2004 is to begin in a few weeks.

The CPA appointed the Governing Council as part of a plan to progressively hand over power to Iraqis following the U.S. military's toppling of the Hussein regime in April. The interim council is to pave the way for future general elections to elect a sovereign government.

Ultimate control during the interim period remains with the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer. Bremer has veto power over the Governing Council but has said he will follow its decisions under all but the most extraordinary circumstances.