Hours after a suicide car bombing killed the head of the US-appointed Governing Council as he arrived for a daily meeting, Iraqis vowed the attack would not stop them from taking part in the country's new transitional government.
But the killing of Izzedine Salim may prove a severe setback both to the credibility of US vows to provide security and to the coalition's ability to attract moderate Iraqis to serve in high-profile positions.
"I think this was a very big 'success' for the terrorists," said Saad Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "I don't know what will happen to the handover, but I think it's a great blow to the Governing Council, and more to the coalition forces. They were the ones supposed to look after the safety of these people, and the poor man was killed at the doorstep of their headquarters."
National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday that the killing would not stop the transition of power to Iraqis.
"We have known for a long time .... that there were going to be people who would try to derail ... the political transition," she said in Berlin. "But the solution to this is ultimately political and Iraqi. It is clearly time for the occupation to end."
Mr. Salim's death was the second assassination of members of the Governing Council, which has never enjoyed much popularity among Iraqis. In September 2003, gunmen opened fire on Aquila al-Hashemi, who later died of her wounds. Ms. Hashemi, who served in Saddam Hussein's government, was one of the council's better-known members.
Monday's bombing, which killed eight Iraqis in addition to Mr. Salim, comes at a politically sensitive time for the US-appointed council.
In recent days, members have been jockeying for a greater role in the post-handover government currently being planned by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, in consultation with US and British authorities and the Governing Council itself. Many council members saw Brahimi's plan for a caretaker government composed of nonpolitical technocrats as an attempt to sideline council members and their political parties.
"Some groups don't want the Governing Council or some parties of the Governing Council to take part in the transitional government," says Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, a top aide to council member Salama al-Khafaji. "But what happened today will have the Governing Council [committed to] taking part in the new government."
The transitional government, which will take power June 30, is meant to shepherd Iraq to elections planned for January 2005. But some observers suggest that the killing could make potential appointees hesitant to play a role in any government appointed by outside authorities.
"It is without doubt terrifying and intimidating a lot of people," says Jawad. "When you are working with the US, cooperating with the US, and you don't get the protection you deserve, I think a lot of people will be hesitant to participate. Even if they don't say so, I think that will be their reaction."
The attack also comes at a delicate time for the US-led coalition. In recent days, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has hinted that he would like to see coalition forces hand over control of the country's police force and jails to Iraqis. Though such a move would be welcomed by most Iraqi leaders, many of whom have been clamoring for control of internal security for months, some said the killing might make it more difficult to pull off.
"I don't think the Iraqis, themselves, alone, can provide security," said Jawdat Kadhim al-Obeidi, secretary general of the Iraqi Democratic Congress, an umbrella group of grass roots political parties. "All of the Iraqis want security back in Iraqi hands, but I don't think they're able to do it alone. It has to be between Americans and Iraqis."
New chief vows to press on
After the attack, which occurred Monday morning, black smoke rose over US coalition headquarters, as US troops and Iraqi police closed down the area just outside the checkpoint where the bomb went off. Selim, badly injured after a red Volkswagen next to his car exploded, died after being rushed to an emergency room.
Council member Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni civil engineer from the northern city of Mosul, assumed the presidency upon news of Salim's death. Mr. Yawer, who had previously been elected to take over from Salim on June 1, will remain in the position until June 30th.
"God willing, the criminal forces will be defeated despite all the pain they are causing to our people and their heroic leaders," said Yawer, insisting he would not be swayed from building "a democratic, federal, plural, and unified Iraq."
But for Iraqis, eager to assume responsibility for their own affairs, the loss of the moderate Shiite leader was discouraging.
Salim, whose given name was Abdul-Zahraa Othman, was a writer and political activist from the southern port city of Basra. He was also a leader of the Shiite Dawa party, banned under Saddam Hussein.
Salim lived in exile, mostly in Iran, for the past 25 years before coming back to Iraq.
"This man was always known for being humble, polite, conciliatory," said Jawad. "He was not aggressive. So to lose such people at this time, it is a great blow. There are some people at the Governing Council that we cannot afford to lose."
Obeidi said he didn't think Salim's death would keep Iraqis from taking part in the new government. "We have ambition," he said. "We don't think of pulling out. Those who want to serve their people should have no fear of such things."
At open-air tea shop in a Shiite neighborhood, a group of men huddled around a TV set tuned to Al-Jazeera. One man, convinced the bombing was an inside job, blamed rival Governing Council members trying to secure a position in the new government by eliminating the opposition.
Salim Ibrahim, a merchant, believed it was an attempt to stall the coming rule of Iraq's majority Shiite community.
"Why have two Shiites on the Governing Council been killed?" he demanded, waving a green string of prayer beads. "Why have these people been killed, when, to this day, not even one Sunni from the Governing Council has been killed?"
"No, no, don't talk like this," shouted another man, running to join in the conversation. "I'm a Shiite myself, but I tell you, I feel sorry for all the Sunnis who have been killed. They are the same as us."
Abdul Jabbar Hassan, a printer, had the last word.
"It's not going to affect anything," he said, sipping a glass of tea. "We Iraqis are used to such things by now."