Iraqi council faces many hurdles

The Arab League declined this week to recognize Iraq's new Governing Council.

Like many Iraqi politicians, Yonadam Kanna has a flair for the theatrical.

During a meeting over sugary tea in his spacious, well-appointed office, the member of Iraq's new 25-person Governing Council abruptly rises from his plush armchair. He steps into a back room, and returns gripping a three-foot- long sword.

"Don't be afraid," he says, his gray moustache curving mischievously. "This is the sword of Uday. He used it to cut women's heads off." In fact, "You are sitting in Uday's office," he tells a female visitor.

"I sent another sword to [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to put in the US national museum to show people how criminal he [Uday] was," Mr. Kanna continues, referring to the late son of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The usually mild-mannered Kanna can be forgiven for a little victor's bravado. After repeated jail terms followed by two decades in the wilderness as an Iraqi opposition leader against the Hussein regime, Kanna relishes the irony of his new position: His Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) now occupies the sprawling Baghdad compound that formerly belonged to Uday Hussein's paramilitary group, Saddam Fedayeen.

"An empire of terrorists has collapsed," he says.

Still, the question for many Iraqis is whether Kanna's gusto will be matched by concrete achievements, as Iraq's fledgling Governing Council begins to create from scratch the framework for democratic rule in the nation of 24 million people.

The hurdles to genuine effectiveness by the council, which convened July 13, are many. First, it is an interim body approved by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which as the occupying force retains the ultimate decision-making power in Iraq.

Major international and regional groups, including the United Nations and - this week - the Arab League, have declined to recognize the Governing Council. Last month, the UN Security Council decided not to give the interim Iraqi body a seat. On Tuesday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called the Governing Council "a start" but opted to withhold recognition until post-Hussein Iraq has an elected government.

Among the Iraqi people, the power of the body remains a question mark, interviews with residents suggest. On the extreme end of the political spectrum, some strident Shiite Islamic clerics have derided the Governing Council as a tool of American tyranny.

Finally, Iraq's very ethnic and religious diversity - reflected in the council's makeup - makes reaching consensus difficult for Kanna and others as they debate key steps in the transition to a permanent elected government in Iraq.

In one of its first major decisions, for example, the council failed after an all-day discussion late last month to select a single president. Instead, it established a rotating presidency, with nine different members serving for one month each in the order of their names in the Arabic alphabet.

"Maybe it would be better if we had one president plus some deputies," Kanna said, "but we are trying to keep the coalition together, so to keep our momentum we agreed on nine people who roughly represent the majority of the council," he said. "We did this for the sake of unity."

The council's 25 members represent all Iraq's ethnic groups including the roughly 75 percent who are Arab, 15 percent who are Kurdish, and the rest who include Turkomans and Assyrians. More than 60 percent of Iraqis - and council members - are Shiite, with more than 30 percent Sunni. Three council members are women, or 12 percent of the total, a high ratio for Arab Islamic countries. About two-thirds of members come from long-time Iraqi opposition groups, while the rest were chosen for their technical expertise.

Collective leadership is the priority, with the president mainly serving to run meetings, Kanna said. The upshot, however, could be a continued lack of decisiveness by the council.

Other primary tasks of the council include: establishing ministries and appointing ministers - which is ongoing this week; selecting Iraqi envoys to other countries; setting national economic, education, and health policy; and creating a commission to draft a new national constitution.

A new constitution, Kanna and others agree, must ensure fair representation for all groups in order to secure Iraq's long-term political stability. This week, the council is discussing a constitutional preparatory committee of 15 diverse experts who will take approximately six months to rewrite the Iraqi constitution, Kanna said.

One sensitive issue will be the role of Islam in the constitution. While the constitution should uphold religious freedom, it is also likely to include a clause expressing respect for "the Islamic culture of the majority of Iraqi people," says Kanna, who is a member of Iraq's Christian minority.

Once the constitution is complete, the plan is to hold a national referendum for Iraqis to vote on it. National elections will then take place, possibly within a year from now, according to coalition and Iraqi officials.

Relations between the interim council and the CPA have been good, Kanna says, although he and other members voice some criticisms of the coalition's handling of security problems in Iraq. After the war, Iraqis looted vast arms warehouses, "taking their pick" of weapons ranging from AK-47s to grenades, he says. Hussein released thousands of criminals before the war.

The council will meet with top coalition generals this week to push for a greater Iraqi security role, he says. One plan calls for sending an Iraqi civil defense battalion to each of the country's 18 governorates.

"The people will never be happy with tanks in the streets every day," Kanna says. "A national Iraqi force will be much more active and productive," he says, adding that Iraqi forces can better sort out "bad guys" unwittingly hired by the US-led coalition.

Despite an ambitious agenda, the council faces practical obstacles to its work. It still lacks a spokesman, has no by-laws, and has yet to define its basic institutional relationships with the CPA or local governments in Iraq. Phone communications are limited, e-mail remains a novelty to some, and security is a constant concern - one reason the council is moving to new offices this month.

Still, Kanna is optimistic as he stands on the roof of his compound. An Assyrian women's movement building and TV station have taken the place of Uday's torture chambers, and children play soccer on a field where Iraqis five months ago feared to tread.

Creating a democracy in Iraq will take time, but at least, he says, the worst is over. "We suffered 35 years," he says. "Now the best job is done, there is no more Saddam Hussein and his regime."

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