- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s new National Assembly is off to a quick start, although not necessarily in the direction that had been expected.

Mandated primarily to prepare the country for national elections in January, the 100-member conclave already has served notice that it intends to play a role in all aspects of Iraqi affairs.

Since convening for the first time last week, the assembly has established committees on foreign, national and social policy, security, education, immigration and economics, as well as elections.

Members also are talking about giving themselves pay raises and immunity from prosecution, “so that they can express the interests of the people with complete freedom,” Assemblyman Mohsen Abdul Hamid told reporters.

That was too much for Ahmad Habib, a 41-year-old cinematographer who helped select the assembly’s members.

“They’re working on making decisions that should be saved for a real government,” he said. “Their job is to prepare for elections, not to begin taking power.”

Few Iraqis feel any sense of identification with the assembly members, who were chosen in mid-August at a national conference of 1,000 delegates from all regions of the country.

Rahim Abdul Wahid described being puzzled a few days ago when a group of sharply dressed men — some speaking Arabic with accents worn down by years living in the West — visited his carpet shop.

“Excuse me, but who are you?” asked Mr. Wahid, a former schoolteacher who follows the news closely. They introduced themselves proudly as his representatives in the National Assembly.

“I had no idea who these people were,” Mr. Wahid recalled. “I never voted for any of them. I had never heard of them. These characters have no connection to me whatsoever.”

The Iraqi press has been slow to embrace the new body, relegating reports on its proceedings to a few paragraphs at the bottom of their inside pages — well below stories on the latest fighting between U.S.-led forces and insurgents in Fallujah, Ramadi, Najaf, Sadr City and Mosul.

Nor were the omens good when the assembly convened for the first time last week in the U.S.-protected Green Zone. A series of mortar rounds rained down close to its temporary quarters and one of its best-known members — former exile Ahmed Chalabi — survived an assassination attempt on his way to the session.

The body includes 19 former members of the dissolved Governing Council, the much maligned 25-member body that advised former occupation leader L. Paul Bremer after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime last year.

Many fear that the assembly will follow in the footsteps of the Governing Council, which was despised by most Iraqis as ineffective, unrepresentative and power-hungry.

“The parliament is the most representative authority in any democracy,” said Ahlam Adnan al-Jabbari, a professor of law at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University. “This National Assembly is a very, very modest step, if at all, toward democracy. Iraqis will never accept this as democratic.”

Mr. Habib, the cinematographer who took part in last month’s national conference, said he is disillusioned by the way the members were chosen. He said the final list of assembly members appeared out of nowhere, as if it had been arranged in a backroom meeting rather than emerged out of public discussions.

“This doesn’t deserve to be called a National Assembly,” said Sheik Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, a hard-line Sunni Islamist group opposed to the political status quo. “They don’t even respect the law that they themselves put in place.”

Some Iraqis are more hopeful.

“We have to approve of [the assembly], because it exists,” said Safa Hossein, a 25-year-old laborer in Adhamiyah, a Sunni Arab stronghold in Baghdad long opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq. “It’s better than nothing, better than being occupied, better than Saddam.”

Advocates of Iraqi democracy say the challenge is not to forge a connection between a mistrustful population and a political process imposed from outside. Rather, it is to politically energize a country where only 15 percent of the population identify themselves as members of a political party.

“The vast majority of the Iraqi people are standing on top of a hill looking down and waiting for a time to enjoy Iraq,” said Isak Ishaq, a spokesman for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, an Iraqi Christian party.

“The people in the government don’t represent the Iraqis, but a narrow band of political parties in Iraq. There are broad spectrums of the population missing from the political scene.”

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