Wed, Jul 16, 2003 - Page 6 News List

First step taken to transition government in Iraq

GOVERNING COUNCIL Relatively powerless, the group of 25 members features 13 Shiites, a Christian and includes 14 political parties of which the US approves

REUTERS , BAGHDAD

Iraq's new US-backed Governing Council faces the daunting task of convincing skeptical Iraqis it can improve their lives and speed the transition to a sovereign government.

Shiite Muslims, long oppressed by former president Saddam Hussein, have been allotted 13 seats on the 25-member council, in recognition that Iraq's biggest community must be given due political weight for the first time in the country's modern history.

The council, which held its inaugural meeting on Sunday, must overcome the suspicions of many Iraqis who look askance at a body appointed by US civil administrator Paul Bremer after consultations with various Iraqi groups.

The US and Britain, as occupying powers, retain ultimate authority in Iraq, but they have given the new council more than the purely advisory role they initially envisaged.

"They [the council] must make immediate differences in people's lives," said Zaab Sethna, an aide in the Iraqi National Congress (INC), whose pro-Western leader Ahmad Chalabi has a seat on the council. The immediate challenge was to restore security and basic services to Iraqis, Sethna said.

The INC and some other political groups had wanted a national conference to choose an interim council, but US and British officials felt this was less likely to produce a body reflecting Iraq's ethnic, political and religious mix.

They also wanted to ensure that groups led by politicians returning from exile did not dominate the structure at the expense of Iraqis who had lived through Saddam's iron rule.

Most parties eventually decided to join the council, though a small one named the Constitutional Monarchy refused to do so.

"This is not a perfect process. This country is recovering from 35 years of tyrannical oppression," said John Sawers, Bremer's British deputy in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that has run Iraq since Saddam's removal on April 9.

The council's powers, set out in a statement, include working on a new Constitution leading to an elected, internationally recognized Iraqi government able to take over from the governing council and end the widely resented US-British military occupation.

"It will take time to rebuild," Sawers said. "But we believe this governing council will set in train a process to draft a new Constitution for Iraq and that new Constitution will be the basis on which elections are held for a fully sovereign government.

"We would like to see that happen just as soon as reasonably possible. And when it does happen, our role as the coalition will have come to an end."

The Iraqi Governing Council will have the right to appoint ministers, set policies and take decisions "in cooperation" with the CPA in areas such as economic reform and electoral laws.

It will "play a full part" in drafting next year's budget with the US-led administration.

In the sensitive area of security, the council will prepare policies and supervise a planned new Iraqi army, but the CPA will keep control of operational matters, the statement said.

The council is to overhaul the economy, providing the credibility needed to underpin any decision to seek foreign investment or privatize state concerns, while also tackling unemployment. It is also expected to reform the justice system.

Apart from its 13 Shiite members, the council has five Sunni Muslims, five Kurds, one Christian and one Turkmen. Three of its members are women.

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