After a bitter last-minute tussle over the choice of president, Iraq's transitional government was unveiled Tuesday, setting in motion the final countdown toward the transfer of sovereignty from the US-led coalition at the end of the month.
But the new government faces daunting tasks. With an undiminished presence of foreign troops, it has to convince a skeptical Iraqi public that it is a genuinely autonomous institution and not a fig leaf for a continued US occupation. And a series of bomb attacks that left at least 14 people in Baghdad and northern Iraq dead served as a grim reminder that restoring security is the principal challenge over the course of its seven-month mandate before full elections are held at the end of January.
"They must concentrate on the issues of security, electricity, the economy, and the life of the people," says Saad Jawad, professor of political science at Baghdad University. "They should work hard on these issues, and if they do, they stand a chance of being supported."
The formation of the government was announced after a deadlock over the choice of the president was resolved. Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, a US and Saudi-educated businessman and tribal leader, was selected as president after his rival, Adnan Pachachi, an 81-year-old Sunni politician, declined the post.
Although the presidency is largely a ceremonial position, Sheikh Yawar is widely respected among Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish communities as well as his own Sunni constituency. He has been critical of US military policy, and in his first public remarks as president-designate, Sheikh Yawar called on the UN to approve full sovereignty for his country.
"We the Iraqis look forward to being granted full sovereignty through a Security Council resolution to enable us to rebuild a free, independent, democratic, and federal unified homeland," he said.
His appointment ended a bitter last-minute wrangle between the US-appointed interim Governing Council on the one hand and Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi,who was charged with helping establish Iraq's transitional government.
Shortly after his position was confirmed, the council voted to dissolve, a decision described by one member as its "final victory."
Of the 24 members of the council, three have made it to the transitional government. The powerful premiership has gone to Ayad Allawi, a Shiite ex-Baathist who heads the Iraqi National Accord and has close ties to the CIA. The third council member is Ibrahim Jafari, the head of the Shiite Dawa Party, who was appointed a deputy president.
The remaining 31 seats in the new government are apportioned to a mix of technocrats, politicians, and civil servants. "I think it's a step forward," says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the dissolved council.
The chief problem remains security. A roadside bomb attack outside a US military base at Bayji, 125 north of Baghdad, left 11 people dead, while a car bomb outside the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in central Baghdad killed another three. Several blasts of suspected mortar rounds were heard near the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority while the Governing Council was meeting with Mr. Bremer and Mr. Brahimi. "We were reminded ... that security in the No. 1 problem," Mr. Othman says.
One reason Mr. Allawi was selected as prime minister was his experience in security affairs and his willingness to employ former Baathist military personnel to help quell the violence, reversing Bremer's much-criticized de-Baathification policy. "The American forces have failed [to achieve security] and now it is the duty of the Iraqis to do it," says Professor Jawad. "They can do it, but they have to go back on stupid decisions like dissolving the police and the Army, and stop speaking about de-Baathification."
Still, few Iraqis expect an imminent and tangible improvement in security. "The first thing people will be looking for is whether they can stop the Americans driving around the country," says Sheikh Ayad Awad, a Sunni cleric who preaches at the Al Nour Mosque in the Baghdad suburb of Saydiyeh. "If the government does not succeed [in curbing the US military presence], it will be seen as a protector of the Americans."
Coalition troop numbers are not expected to decline any time soon, and Allawi admitted that the new government would still need coalition help. "We will need the participation of the multinational forces to help in defeating the enemies of Iraq. We will enter into alliances to accomplish that," he said.
But US troops will remain targets of the insurgents as long as they remain on Iraqi soil, says Sheikh Awad. "The jihadis will defend their country against all occupiers as well as politicians who seek to attack the jihadis," he says, using a sympathetic term.
Is Allawi such a politician? "Of course. Allawi is an American soldier, supporting the line of the CIA," he says.
It is sentiments such as that and the skepticism aired on Baghdad's streets Tuesday that suggest the new government faces an uphill struggle in convincing ordinary Iraqis that it is a genuinely sovereign body. "It's not an end to the occupation because America is not the kind of country that will pay all these efforts to come to Iraq, stay for one year, and then leave," says Anwar Jassem, a Kurdish shopkeeper. "They are controlling everything, and they will always be there controlling everything from behind the curtain and the Iraqi government will just be the face."