Iraq's governing council was set to hold its inaugural session yesterday in a landmark step toward rebuilding the country and preparing the ground for elections as early as next year.
The 25-member council was due to meet in Baghdad at 11am, one of its members said. The milestone meeting would be the first of an executive Iraqi body since US-led forces wrenched the Baath Party from power in April.
The council is charged with mapping Iraq's path toward elections and will have responsibility for appointing ministers and diplomats, approving a budget and selecting a committee to draw up a draft constitution, a UN official said.
Top US civil administrator Paul Bremer, who had initially planned to name a political council with an advisory role, hailed the new body as "the first official step ... on the road to political and economic independence."
"This is the latest sign of progress ... This is not yet a full democracy, but freedom is on the march," he wrote in an editorial in yesterday's New York Times.
The council, he said, "represents all the strands from Iraq's complicated social structure -- Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, men and women, Christians and Turkmens.
"The council will immediately exercise real political power, appointing interim ministers and working with the coalition on policy and budgets.
"The council will establish procedures to write Iraq's new constitution. Once it is ratified by the people, elections can be held and a sovereign Iraqi government will come into being," he said.
The landmark meeting falls almost 35 years to the day after the Baath Party regime came to power in 1968.
It represents a milestone for Iraq, with citizens seething at the slow pace of coalition efforts to restore basic services and security and introduce a democratically elected government as promised.
But amid the first tentative steps toward democracy, Bremer warned that Iraq's fragile security situation was not likely to improve overnight.
"The combination of a broken infrastructure and acts of sabotage could mean a rough summer. We will suffer casualties, as the bitter-enders resort to violence," he wrote.
"We are also braced for an increase in terrorism by non-Iraqis, but no one should doubt our determination to use our power in the face of violent acts."
Coalition forces have blamed diehard remnants of the ousted regime for the steady trickle of attacks that have claimed the lives of at least 31 US soldiers since major combat was declared over on May 1.
The coalition's rebuilding efforts suffer from an Iraqi public skeptical of its motives, despite many welcoming the US policing that they say is all that prevents the capital from falling into anarchy.
But Bremer vowed that the US-led coalition would end its occupation as soon as it could, once a permanent Iraqi government has been established.
"America has no designs on Iraq and its wealth. We will finish our job here and stay not one day longer than necessary," he said.
The credibility of the unelected governing council is considered crucial to coalition efforts to rebuild Iraq and get its oil-based export economy up and running to fund the massive costs of reconstruction.
Responsibility for security will stay in the coalition's hands and Bremer will wield a final veto over all decisions, according to a UN source, who asked not to be named.