Scorned by many Iraqis as a toothless instrument of the coalition authorities and facing extinction in a month, Iraq's Governing Council is nonetheless playing an influential last-minute role in shaping the new administration scheduled to take power when the occupation ends on June 30.
It upstaged UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in prematurely announcing it had chosen as the prime minister-designate Ayad Alawi, a Shiite council member and ex-Baathist who heads the Iraqi National Accord. And Mr. Alawi, who has close ties to the CIA and Britain's MI6 intelligence service, has wasted little time in stamping his imprint on the new government, sacking 17 of 26 ministers, including Interior Minister Samir al-Sumaidie, according to CPA and ministry officials, who had the daunting task of overseeing security.
Furthermore, the council's resistance to the coalition's choice for the next president has led to the missing of a May 31 deadline to announce the new government.
Council members are angry at what they see as unwarranted American interference in choosing the transitional government, a process that was supposed to be led by Mr. Brahimi at the behest of the Bush administration. The impression of excessive US involvement in the process could undermine the new government in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, who would view this as the occupation under a different name.
The Shiite Dawa Party complained in a statement that the process is no different from last summer when the US decided on the composition of the Governing Council.
"In closed rooms they are naming ministers but we don't know what the criteria are for naming these members," says Adnan Ali, who heads the Dawa's political bureau. "If it carries on like this [the new government] won't last.... We have deep reservations about ex-regime people taking posts."
Negotiations between the council members, Brahimi, and Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, were postponed from Monday to Tuesday after talks over the weekend failed to break the deadlock.
"We were supposed to meet this morning but were told it had been postponed by the Americans," says Mahmoud Othman, a independent Kurdish member of the council. "The negotiations have not reached a conclusion and more time is needed."
The 24-member council, a mix of seasoned politicians, exiles, academics, and tribal leaders, appeared doomed to irrelevancy when Brahimi said last month that none of them would appear in the post-June 30 administration. Brahimi, charged with helping to form a transitional government, favored a team of technocrats who could hold Iraq together until national elections, scheduled to be held by the end of January.
But on Friday, the council surprised everyone by announcing that it had endorsed Alawi as prime minister. Now the council has locked horns with the UN envoy and the CPA chief over the choice of president. The council members favor Ghazi al-Yawar, a US-educated Sunni engineer and leader of the prominent Shammar tribe who has expressed criticism of the occupation and US military actions. Mr. Bremer and Brahimi are said to prefer Adnan Pachachi, an 81-year-old veteran Sunni Iraqi politician who is regarded as generally pro-US.
Raja Habib Khuzai, a Shiite member of the council says, "The Americans want Pachachi, but they won't tell us why. If they continue to insist on Pachachi it will create very big problems because all the Iraqis want Sheikh al-Yawar, not just the Governing Council."
Despite his biting criticism of past coalition actions, Sheikh al-Yawar is a vocal opponent of the mainly Sunni-driven insurgency. His influence with Iraq's tribes could help reduce the level of violence, reassuring nervous Sunnis that they will not be marginalized in the new Iraq.
But CPA officials privately concede that Pachachi has the backing of the Americans because he is seen as the one person who will stand by the Transitional Administrative Law during ing the interim period. The law, of which Pachachi was a key architect, was drawn up earlier this year to serve as a temporary constitution until a permanent one is established no later than December 2005. "Everyone else will just ignore it like any piece of paper," says one CPA official.
The law sparked opposition among Shiites, who represent 65 percent of the population. They resented a clause that potentially allowed Kurds and Sunnis to veto a future constitution.
Despite the apparent stalemate between the coalition and the Governing Council, a senior CPA official insists that the council has not usurped the process of forming the new government and that Brahimi is still very much in control.
"The Governing Council may favor one candidate over another, but it's not a decision for the council to make. It's a decision for the Iraqis to make," the official says. "The council has an important say, but there are many other constituents out there and Brahimi is trying to get a consensus."
Even the announcement of Alawi's appointment as prime ministe designate was not against the wishes of the UN envoy, the official adds. Mr Brahimi had offered his name along with three or four others to the council for their consideration as prime minister. The council clearly favored Alawi over the other candidates.
"If there was any form of surprise it was that the decision was made public straight away," the official says.
Alawi, who has spent months lobbying for backing in Washington, appears to be the favored choice of the US as well as the Governing Council.
Still, his swift dismissal of cabinet ministers, including Sumaidie, is drawing some criticism, coming amid the collapse of a cease-fire south of Baghdad between US troops and militants loyal to maverick Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and continued violence elsewhere in Iraq. Ministry officials say they are worried for their own jobs, believing that fresh appointments will be based on cronyism rather than merit.
"Sumaidie was making progress and this is a job that needs continuity," says a CPA official. "His being fired puts us two to three months behind. Before, we were taking two steps forward and one back, and now it's two steps back and, hopefully, one forward."