Iraq's first political body began the grinding work of policymaking, voting to send a delegation to the UN Security Council and tackling organizational matters. But attacks outside the meeting hall and criticism from at home and the wider Arab world were sharp reminders of the challenges faced on a long and uncertain road to democracy.
In Kazimyah, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of north Baghdad, thousands turned out yesterday for the funeral of Ahmed al-Waeli, a prominent cleric who died in Baghdad of natural causes less than a week after his return from exile. Many at the funeral used the occasion to criticize the council, saying it was not elected and illegitimate.
Al-Hawza al-Ilmiyah, Iraq's highest Shiite Muslim seat of learning based in the southern city of Najaf, handed out leaflets Monday calling on followers to protest, and several Shiite mosques made similar pleas at Monday evening prayers.
Criticism of the council and Iraq's US and British occupiers also came from abroad. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa on Sunday issued a statement saying that had the new council been elected, "it would have gained much power and credibility."
The league represents 21 Arab nations and the Palestinian Authority, many of whose leaders, like former president Saddam Hussein, gained power by force or right of birth, not through elections.
The governing council, which was announced Sunday, will have real political muscle with the power to name ministers and approve next year's budget. But final control of Iraq rests with Paul Bremer -- the US administrator of Iraq and a major architect of the council. The 25-member body, comprised of prominent Iraqis from all walks of political and religious life, announced the delegation it was sending to the UN would "assert and emphasize the role of the governing council as a legitimate Iraqi body during this transitional period."
US officials say elections are not practical in Iraq right now. The council is meant to be the forerunner of a constitutional assembly, which will pave the way for elections sometime late next year or early 2005.
In a statement, US President George W. Bush called the establishment of the council "an important step forward in the ongoing transition from ruthless dictatorship to a free and democratic Iraq with Iraqis determining their own future."
Other countries also welcomed the new Iraqi political body -- even some that were critical of the US-led war to oust Saddam.
Both supporters and opponents of the conflict believe formation of an Iraqi administration could make it easier for them to contribute to the reconstruction of the shattered country -- a crucial way of improving their ties with Washington.
"I welcome the setting up of the governing council in Iraq ... as a first important step toward a genuine and representative Iraqi administration," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said in a statement.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the council "is seen as the first major step toward the transfer of official power in the country from the coalition forces and into the hands of Iraqis" and a "model" for addressing the problems of security and reconstruction.
While the council met behind closed doors Monday, the chaos of Iraq's streets was not far away.
After the meeting broke up, an explosion about a half kilometer from the compound turned a black four-wheel drive vehicle owned by the Tunisian Embassy into a burned-out metal hulk. The site of the blast was a parking lot where journalists leave cars ahead of news conferences.