New step toward Iraqi self-rule

The US-backed Iraqi governing council appointed a team of 25 ministers Monday.

In a postwar Iraq in which things have begun to look more precarious than during the war itself, the US-chosen governing council Monday introduced a team of 25 ministers. Many hoped the appointees would be received as catalysts in the mired process of turning over authority to Iraqis.

The willingness to rethink the pace of that transition became apparent over the weekend. The most recent of three ghastly car bombings suggested that US-led occupation authorities desperately need to get more Iraqis involved in securing the country - and in preparing to direct their own affairs.

The choice of cabinet ministers was a reflection of the balance that US brokers tried to achieve in July when they hand-picked the interim governing council, including 13 Shiites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds, one ethnic Turk and an Assyrian Christian. But many skeptical Iraqis are continuing to dismiss the appointees as American minions.

"If we don't have a sovereign government out of this council, I think it will be a disaster," says Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for former exile Ahmad Chalabi, who took over Monday as the president of the governing council for September. "The only way to solve the problem of security is to bring it as a result of Iraqi sovereignty, not the other way around," says Mr. Qanbar.

Iraqis say they are waiting to see whether the people chosen to run the ministries will be professionals with managerial experience - or political appointees who, like the 24 members of the council, were chosen mainly in an attempt to balance competing religious and ethnic groups.

The 25th member of the council, Mohammed Bakir al-Uloum, resigned Saturday from the council because of what he said was the coalition's inability to protect prominent figures. On Friday, a car bomb killed Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, one of the country's most senior Shiite leaders and an advocate of cooperation with the US, along with about 125 others while at worship in Najaf.

Monday's appointments reflected efforts to make sure each of the most influential groups would feel it gained its fair share of the pie. Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a Shiite, was appointed to be oil minister. His is a central role since he will direct Iraq's most significant source of revenue - if he can help harness the country's rattled and sabotaged oil resources. Hoshyar Zebari, a well-spoken senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was named foreign minister. Former exile Nouri Badran, a Shiite, was appointed interior minister, and Kamil Mubdir al-Gailani, a Sunni, will serve as finance minister.

Many Iraqis complain that they don't like the precedent that this kind of official sectarianism sets up, claiming that it, combined with the onslaught of violence, will drive Iraq towards the kind of divisiveness that led to the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1975.

"This is the Lebanization of Iraq," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "It goes against the idea of merit. Would Americans like the idea of saying their president must be a Protestant, the vice president should be a Jew, and the head of Congress a Catholic? This is the end of the country."

Others, particularly members of the governing council, remain optimistic.

The vast majority of the new appointees are unknown to most Iraqis. On the one hand, this suggests that at least some professionals - rather than pure political operatives - are taking charge. On the other, some say it represents a continuing domination of Iraqis returning from exile, which creates resentment from other Iraqis who think of them as privileged outsiders.

When the time came for Songul Chapook to fulfill one of her most important duties as a member of the council, she did what seemed right. She read the 50 résumés she received. Then she jotted down the most promising names, closed her eyes, said a prayer, and plucked out the name of Iraq's next minister of science and technology.

Ms. Chapook, a civil engineer and professor from Kirkuk, says she was glad she pulled the name of Rashad Mendan Omar, quite blindly, out of the pile. Mr. Omar, the new minister, has a PhD in engineering, and has for the past five years been working in Dubai for a company that builds airports. Like her, and like all the candidates Chapook considered for the position, he is an ethnic Turkmen, originally from the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

"Personally, I never met him, but I spoke to him on the phone," Chapook says of the new minister. She and other leaders of the Turkmen minority, descendents of Turks who lived in Iraq while it was part of the Ottoman Empire, complain that the Turkmen should have been given at least three ministries, not one. "I reject this way of choosing ministers, because we don't need to have this emphasis" on ethnic or religious identity, she says.

Indeed, several Iraqis charge that the US has set a precedent for a virtual quota system, elevating ethnic and religious differences to a level that was never so prominent before.

What Iraq needs most now, many here say, are qualified experts. "I fear they will be political appointments and not the technocrats the Iraqis are looking for," says Saad Jawad, a Baghdad University political scientist.

Ali al-Haidari, the editor of the newspaper Nur il-Hurriye, or Light of Freedom, sees the appointments as simply a mirror of the governing council.

"Everyone is just bringing in his own guy and putting him inside the ministry," he says. Although three out of the 25 original members of the governing council are women, only one was appointed as a minister: Nesreen Sidiq Berwari, a Kurdish woman who will serve as minister of public works.

"In the past, ministers played the role of politicians, rather than technicians," says Ahmad Almukhtar, the governing council's press secretary. "It's important now to gain the confidence of the people."

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