Old Iraqi council clings to key roles

Ahmed Chalabi, now out of favor with US, helps shape the new assembly.

When the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council dissolved itself on June 1 - a month ahead of schedule - it seemed it was all over for a body that Iraqis widely viewed as too close to the United States. But even as the council members gave up their seats, they were writing themselves a leading role in the interim government that takes power next week.

In a little-noticed edict, the defunct council guaranteed itself seats on Iraq's Interim National Council, a 100-member assembly that will have power to approve the 2005 budget, veto executive orders with a two-thirds majority, and appoint replacements to the presidency. The former council also guaranteed itself seats on a headspinning array of committees that will select other members of the new body.

As political players jockey for positions in the upcoming council, the selection process is being dominated by members of the Governing Council - including Ahmed Chalabi, whose office was raided last month by US and Iraqi security forces investigating charges of kidnapping, corruption, and robbery. The role of former council members is raising concerns among many Iraqis that their involvement may taint the legitimacy of the new government. It is especially troubling to those who had hoped for a more homegrown leadership to emerge.

"There are very important and gifted and honest Iraqi personalities who up until now have been distanced from the new government," said Jawadat al-Obeidi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Democratic Congress, an umbrella group of 216 Iraqi political parties. He reels off a list of names of academics, doctors, and other prominent Iraqis who have been excluded from the process. "These people are trying to go to the Governing Council members, but no one answers or returns their calls."

The Interim National Council, which will be chosen by a conference of Iraqi leaders, is supposed to provide checks and balances to the executive branch of the new government, whose top members were chosen from the Governing Council's ranks. It is intended to represent parts of society - women, civil society groups, and others - not reflected in the political parties that dominate the executive branch.

Here's how it will work: In July, a national conference of about 1,000 people will meet. Modeled on Afghanistan's loya jirga, the conference will include people from all walks of life - "tribal chiefs and leaders, trade and professional unions, universities, women's groups, youth organizations, writers, poets and artists, as well as religious leaders, among many others," according to the Interim Government. The Conference will choose the Interim National Council.

But at the moment, the conference is being planned by yet another body, the Supreme Commission for the Preparation of the National Conference. That commission, which will decide who attends the July conference, was supposed to include a broad range of people, including those chosen by Lakhdar Brahimi, United Nations special envoy, to represent Iraqis outside the former Governing Council.

But the Supreme Commission has been dominated by former Governing Council members from the start: it was selected by a five-member committee, now disbanded, consisting of four former Governing Council members, including Mr. Chalabi, and chaired by the deputy of Jalal Talabani, another former council member.

"Essentially, the Iraqi Governing Council seems to have granted itself life after death," said Nathan Brown, a political science professor at The George Washington University in Washington.

Chalabi, who fought bitterly with Mr. Brahimi, tried to veto several of his choices for the Supreme Commission. "When we looked at Brahimi's list, we saw people on it who weren't respected in Iraq - some of them live abroad, and some were people who had strong relations with former regime," said Salama al-Khafaji, a Shiite professor also on the committee. "So Chalabi and I protested; Chalabi said he has files on some of the people on the list."

With the former Governing Council calling the shots, many fear that the national conference will merely rubber-stamp its decisions. "I wish it was a different group of people who are selecting this government, rather than people who lived abroad in New York, London, and Washington, drinking whiskey and going out to nightclubs," said Hameed Hassan al-Obaidi, who is sheikh of a 750,000-member Shiite tribe.

Mr. Obaidi's comments reflect the deep dissatisfaction many Iraqis feel with the presence of exiles on the former council and in the new government. (Iraq's new prime minister, former council member Iyad Allawi, is a former exile with CIA ties.)

Some of those who were invited to participate even decided not to. "We received some invitations, about seven members of us, and we declined to attend the meeting," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University who is part of a political front opposed to the occupation. "We are not going to be used to give legitimacy to a constitution or a committee which has been, directly or indirectly, appointed by the occupation."

Even insiders are dissatisfied with the way the new government is being planned. Dr. Khafaji blasted what she calls the exclusion of anyone from the Sadrist camp - a political movement that includes not just followers of the militant young cleric, but those who adhere to the tradition of his more moderate father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, a dissident Shiite cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Wednesday, the chairman of the Supreme Commission said Sadr's followers had been invited to join. But a Sadr spokesman said the cleric declined the offer of one seat as only a token measure.

"In the Supreme Commission, there is an important Iraqi social movement that is not represented, which is Sadr and the entire Sadrist movement," said Khafaji.

Though a former Governing Council member herself, Khafaji said she opposed the guarantee of seats for herself and her colleagues. "But the CPA argued that the Governing Council members have expertise in running the country, and that different bodies will gain from our experience," she said. "I argued for having a debate and discussion, and competing for seats.... I think it is something that is not democratic, and it is not Iraqi."

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