After more than three months of American and British occupation, Iraqis Sunday began taking their first steps at self-rule, through a US-approved "governing council" meant to serve as the seed of democracy in Iraq.
Despite widespread Iraqi concerns that the council would be limited to an advisory, rubber-stamp role for continued American rule, the 25 members - including leaders of seven main former opposition groups - Sunday made clear that they expect to exercise executive authority, as promised by L. Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq.
"Legitimacy" was a word on the lips of many delegates, aware that Iraq's US-backed political process will stand or fall on whether it is perceived as "made in Iraq."
With as many as two dozen attacks against US forces each day, and the daily dimming of Iraqi expectations for the post-Saddam era, US and Iraqi players alike say the new council is a needed step.
The fact that key senior Shiite Muslim leaders nodded their acceptance at the eleventh hour - if only to speed the end of US occupation - is likely to help ease popular fears that the new body is packed with American puppets.
Delegates insisted in a joint statement, read by prominent Shiite cleric Mohamed Bahr al-Uloum, that the council is "an expression of the Iraqi national will," while acknowledging that their "responsibilities cannot be underestimated."
"There are defining moments in history, and today, for Iraq, is definitely one of them," the UN chief in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, told the council. "Freedom, dignity and security must from now on be taken for granted by all Iraqis."
Shiites, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, hold more than half of the new council seats. The senior clerics' decision to participate points to a calculation that they can better achieve their ends by engaging in the political process than by fighting it from outside.
"This is the best way for the Americans to leave Iraq," said the black-turbaned Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakkim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in an interview in the southern holy city of Najaf. "If it fails, it will be a very serious problem."
Keeping Shiite leaders "under the tent" has been a primary aim of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as it aims toward eventual creation of a new sovereign, democratic Iraqi government.
Already, this governing council has the power to appoint and dismiss interim ministers, draft the budget, and orchestrate the creation of a new constitution. It will also help deflect blame from US occupiers, officials say, for continued lack of steady electricity, water and law and order. It will also emphasize, by creating an Iraqi face of government, that sabotage and attacks against coalition forces are attacks on Iraqis themselves.
"This is all about the Iraqis taking control," says CPA spokesman Charles Heatly. "They have a very significant role to play."
While the CPA retains final authority in Iraq, Bremer has made clear that he hopes to intervene rarely. Architects of the process suggest a system that resembles a constitutional monarchy, in which the sovereign simply signs off on decisions.
Still, some clerics are calling for an immediate expulsion of US troops from Iraq, and in Friday prayers derided US efforts.
"The Americans will not establish a just government," young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said in a brief interview, following Friday prayers for thousands of faithful at the Kufa mosque, near the holy city of Najaf. Mr. al-Sadr is the son of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, one of Iraq's most prominent Shiite clerics, who was killed by Baathists in 1999.
John Sawers, the senior British representative in Iraq, said Sunday that al-Sadr's group is not widely supported. "This is not a perfect process," says Mr. Sawers. "The politics of this country have been completely destroyed by Saddam Hussein. It's going to take time for new parties to form, for political leaders to connect with the Iraqi people.
"Every member of this council believes that together, this council is fully representative of the Iraqi people," adds Sawers.
Among those believers is Ayatollah Hakkim's brother, Abdulaziz al-Hakkim, who sits on the council. Hakkim also has the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent religious leader. In his own Friday sermon, Hakkim put an end to speculation about the Shiite view of the council, saying that it should play a "big role," but must also "have an Iraqi identity and be an Iraqi reality."
"The patience of people is coming to an end, and if that happens, we'll face an explosion," the ayatollah told his followers in Najaf. It is "not correct" for the council to simply advise occupation forces, and "if Iraqis see the council does not represent them, they have a right to resist and reject it."
The council, which includes three women, list reads like a Who's Who of the Iraqi opposition. Longtime Kurdish opponents of the regime, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani have seats, along with veterans in opposition politics Iyad Alawi, of the Iraqi National Accord, and Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress and a Pentagon favorite. Former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi has a seat, along with head of the maternity hospital in Diwaniya,Dr. Raja Habib al-Khuzai.
Not one Iraqi who was asked to join the council refused. Grassroots "name your leader" consultations with hundreds of educated Iraqis, held under the provisional authority's auspices, at times turned up matching nominees - some of whom now sit on the council.
Widely popular was Judge Dara Noor Alzin, a member of the court of appeal who declared Saddam Hussein's land confiscation edict unconstitutional, and served eight months in prison before being released in a general amnesty last October.
Perhaps one surprise is the prominent role played by exiles. From the platform Sunday, Mr. Chalabi thanked President Bush and the US congress for "helping us liberate ourselves from the Saddam regime." The comment sparked an outburst by two Iraqis in the audience, who chanted "Long live Bush!" in Arabic. That view is not so widespread on the streets of Iraq, where many Iraqis have yet to see any positive improvement in their lives except the freedom of speech - since the fall of the regime.
The council represents a victory for exile groups, which only a month ago seemed to have been marginalized in the process. More than half the delegates were exiles once, a fact that raises questions among Iraqis about how out of touch they may be with Iraqi problems.
INC spokesman Intifad Qanbar notes, however, that "this was a totalitarian state in which there was no political activity, and people were executed for saying their views. So it is very natural to have people working abroad, in exile, to promote the cause of their country," he says.
The new council's first act was to declare April 9 a holiday marking the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's Governing Council
Ahmed Chalabi, founder of Iraqi National Congress, Shiite
Abdelaziz al-Hakkim, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, Shiite
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Dawa Islamic Party, Shiite
Nasir al-Chadirch, National Democratic Party, Sunni
Jalal Talabani, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Sunni Kurd
Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan Democratic Party, Sunni Kurd
Iyad Alawi, leader of the Iraqi National Accord, Shiite
Ahmed al-Barak, human rights activist, Shiite
Adnan Pachachi, former foreign minister, Sunni
Aquila al-Hashimi, female, foreign affairs expert, Shiite
Raja Habib al-Khuzai, female, maternity hospital director in south, Shiite
Hamid Majid Moussa, Communist Party, Shiite
Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, cleric from Najaf, Shiite
Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, northern tribal chief, Sunni
Mohsen Abdel Hamid, Iraqi Islamic Party, Sunni
Samir Shakir Mahmoud, Sunni
Mahmoud Othman, Sunni Kurd
Salaheddine Bahaaeddin, Kurdistan Islamic Union, Sunni Kurd
Younadem Kana, Assyrian Christian
Mouwafak al-Rabii, Shiite
Dara Noor Alzin, judge
Sondul Chapouk, female, Turkoman
Wael Abdul Latif, Basra governor, Shiite
Abdel-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, member of Iraqi political party Hezbollah, Shiite
Abdel-Zahraa Othman Mohammed, Dawa Party, Shiite
- Associated Press