- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

BAGHDAD — Iraqis yesterday inaugurated a broadly representative governing council, which promptly declared April 9 — the day Baghdad fell to U.S. forces — a national holiday.

In the deeply symbolic first public action, the council also banned celebrations on six dates important to Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. The act was announced, significantly, by a prominent Shi’ite cleric. Shi’ites, long oppressed by Saddam, now dominate the 25-member council.

“The establishment of this council represents the Iraqi national will after the collapse of the dictatorial regime,” said the cleric, Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum from the southern holy city of Najaf.

The council will have real political muscle, with the power to name ministers and approve the 2004 budget. But final control of Iraq still rests with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq and a major architect of the council.

The council, painstakingly assembled from representatives of the country’s main political factions and ethnic groups, said it would select its leadership today.

With the U.S. military still facing daily attacks blamed on Saddam supporters, establishment of the council gives an Iraqi face to the U.S.-led occupation of the country. American administrators had changed plans several times in the past months, wavering over how much authority to give the new body and leaving many Iraqis frustrated.

As the new members were introduced to the world at the Baghdad Convention Center, Mr. Bremer stood and applauded from the front row. But he made no comment, a move designed to lower the American profile.

Council member Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister, said he does not expect Mr. Bremer to veto council decisions and that he believed negotiations would settle all disputes.

Still to be seen is whether the council can convince the Iraqi people that it represents them, even though they had no chance to vote on its members. Coalition leaders say an election in Iraq is not yet practical.

On the same day as the inauguration, U.S. forces launched their latest sweep in cities and towns of central Iraq, hunting for Saddam loyalists amid expectations of anti-U.S. attacks to mark a number of Ba’athist holidays this week. In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that attacks on U.S. troops may worsen this summer.

“There’s still a lot people from the Ba’athist and Fedayeen Saddam regime types who are there, who are disadvantaged by the fact that their regime has been thrown out and would like to get back, but they’re not going to succeed,” he said.

Images of the inauguration were broadcast live by Western and Arab satellite television, received in about 40 percent of homes in Baghdad. Council members — some dressed in traditional Arab robes, some in Islamic clerical garb, others in business suits — sat in a semicircle of chairs on a stage before an audience of dignitaries.

The council includes 13 Shi’ites, five Kurds, five Sunnis, one Christian and one Turkoman. Three members are women. Shi’ites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million population, but they have never ruled the country and suffered deeply under Saddam’s minority Sunni government.

“I helped deliver thousands of Iraqi babies, and now I am taking part in the birth of a new country and a new rule based on women’s rights, humanity, unity and freedom,” said Raja Habib al-Khuza’ai, one of the female council members and the director of a maternity hospital in southern Iraq.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, called the day “historic,” and said the country was “moving back to where it rightfully belongs, at peace with itself and a member of the community of nations.”

Mr. de Mello was the only Westerner to speak at the session, and his appearance on the stage was seen as a gesture to the United Nations.

The panel is meant to be the forerunner of a 200-to-250-member constitutional assembly that is planned to start drawing up a draft constitution in September, a process expected to take nine months to a year. Iraqis would then vote on the draft in a national referendum. Free elections to pick a government are expected to follow.

In the streets, Iraqis welcomed yesterday’s inauguration.

“The formation of this council which represents all sectors of Iraqi society is the birth of democracy in the country. It is better than Saddam’s government of destruction and dictatorship,” said Razzak Abdul-Zahra, 35, an engineer.

Others were hopeful but skeptical of U.S. intentions.

“We do not want to see this council used by the Americans as a tool to achieve their goals in Iraq,” said Bassem al-Duleimi, 22, a university student.

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