Iraqis hit plans for interim regime

Leaders say that UN envoy's outline for a body that would govern until January's elections should include lawmaking powers.

As United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi begins the arduous task of constructing Iraq's transitional government, his plan is receiving criticism from all sides - not just from the US-appointed Governing Council, but from some of the same people who helped him design it.

The Governing Council's objections are no surprise: Political appointees viewed as illegitimate by most Iraqis, they stand to lose their jobs once his plan goes into effect.

But tribal and religious leaders have also raised objections. They want a broader, more representative body chosen by Iraqis from homegrown institutions - one that looks more like a sovereign government with lawmaking powers. That, they say, would set the right precedent for ultimate Iraqi self-rule. And given the country's history of coups and present chaotic conditions, the model would reassure Iraqis if the transitional government were to end up becoming a permanent one.

"We need a transitional authority with legitimacy and without interference," says Sheikh Adnan al-Janabi, a World Bank consultant and former OPEC official who has met with Mr. Brahimi several times. "If we could develop, with the UN, a transparent administration that has support among Iraqi people, they could be midwives for this administration."

On his last visit, Brahimi laid out a plan for a "caretaker" government that would assume power after the June 30 handover from the US-led occupation. It would cease to exist in January 2005, when Iraq is scheduled to hold national elections. Composed of technocrats - essentially administrators with limited executive powers - it would have a president and two vice presidents, reflecting ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, balanced by a prime minister who would oversee a cabinet of ministers.

One thing it would not have, however, is lawmaking powers. "I am absolutely confident that most Iraqis want a simple solution for this interim period," Brahimi said in mid-April. "You don't need a legislative body for this short period."

Some leaders, though, want an interim legislature with power to check and balance the executive branch. "Under Brahimi's plan, if it's an executive system, who would control the interim government?" says Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, a top adviser to Salama al-Khafaji, the only Governing Council member not appointed by occupation authorities. "Who would say to the interim government, 'You're wrong'?"

All sides say they want a more representative body than the placeholder administration Brahimi envisions, meant simply to shepherd Iraq to elections. The Governing Council has hinted that it wants to see some role for its political parties, most of which represent religious and ethnic affiliations.

In a statement Saturday, the Governing Council suggested that Brahimi's plan does not have "wide popular support." A spokesman for longtime Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi accused Brahimi, who helped design Afghanistan's transitional government, of being an "Arab nationalist" and his plan of being designed by "a foreign entity."

Mr. Janabi and others, meanwhile, reject a large role for most of the political parties that make up the Governing Council. "All of these are American creatures - they don't represent Iraq," says Janabi, who leads the Janabis, a Sunni triangle tribe with some half a million members. "In Iraq, you have several things: tribal, professional associations, women, and ethnic groups. That's our civil society. Not bogus claims by some religious organizations created after the Americans came to Iraq."

Many of the Iraqis now lobbying for an interim legislature are the same ones who convinced Brahimi, on his last visit to Iraq, to plan a national conference modeled on Afghanistan's loya jirga gathering, with representatives from all facets of Iraqi life - not just ethnic and sectarian groups.

"By having an Iraqi national assembly, we would have a form of election that Iraqis would participate in," says Sheikh Hussein Ali al-Shaalan, head of the Iraqi National Council of Tribes. "If you have a large assembly, that effectively lessens the number of enemies in the street."

Under Brahimi's current plan, the national conference would convene after the executive branch of government was already in place and choose a "consultative assembly" that would serve as an advisory council to the already-existing government. Mr. Shaalan and others, however, want the consultative assembly to have broader powers. They proposed to Brahimi that a national conference of about 1,500 should meet for two days and choose a smaller body of about 250 from among themselves. That smaller group, instead of the president and prime minister, would then appoint the government - ministers and cabinet members - and oversee them as an interim legislature.

"The birth of the government would be more Iraqi and more legitimate than what preceded it," says Shaalan, referring to the Governing Council. "So it will have wider acceptance in the street, and will be able to have sovereignty."

But some experts caution that setting up an interim legislature could prolong the transition period and ultimately delay elections. "Of course they would like to have a democratic government right away, and who can blame them?" says Barnett Rubin, an expert who worked with Brahimi on Afghanistan's Bonn Agreement for post-Taliban transformation. "But it's just not possible. We tried to have that at Bonn, an interim legislature, but the various factions just couldn't agree."

Mr. Rubin points to the controversy that arose during the drafting of Iraq's interim constitution. Iraq's Kurdish minority insisted on a veto of any proposed legislation, angering the Shiite majority. If Iraq were to form an interim legislature, says Rubin, it would likely be rife with similar power struggles.

"The main problem with this interim government is not that it's going to be too powerful, it's that it's going to be too weak," says Rubin. "The fact is, there is a check on the government, and that's the US. It's not the one the Iraqis want, but that's the one it's going to be."

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