Seated before an audience at the Baghdad Convention Center, the 25 members of Iraq's new Governing Council looked, at first glance, like an admirable exercise in representative nation-building. It was the council's unveiling, and its members traded jokes and whispered into one another's ears. Here were hard-line fundamentalists sitting next to doctrinaire communists, rural chiefs mingling with sheiks in robes and turbans; a mix of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites; an Assyrian, a Turkoman and three women. At the council's first meeting on July 13, Dr. Raja Khurzai, the head of a local maternity hospital, was dropped off at the Baghdad Convention Center by her husband. Kurdish leader Masood Barzani rolled up in a motorcade of 17 vehicles spilling out bodyguards and minions.
L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civil administrator who had a large hand in picking the council, originally envisioned a simple advisory group--but the Iraqis argued for, and apparently won, a more authoritative, decision-making role for themselves. Now they've got it, at least on paper: the council will be able to appoint government ministers, run the de-Baathification campaign and start drafting a new constitution to pave the way for eventual elections. But the council's most pressing task will be to prove its legitimacy to the Iraqi people. Until that happens, it may be considered more of a U.S. public-relations ploy than the start of a new Iraq run by Iraqis.
The group's first step will be to overcome their widely differing backgrounds. "When you have a guy with an Islamist head-cap sitting next to a communist," said Jassim Al Hilfi, a leading member of the Communist Party who sat in on some of the early meetings, "well, it's an experiment." There's a lot at stake and not much time to lose. "They understand this is their one shot to get things going in the right direction, and they don't want to screw it up," says one Coalition official who is working with the council.
There are plenty who'd like to see them fail. A Shiite firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr in Kufa, north of Najaf, is already calling for the creation of an Islamic army and a "council of the righteous." One recent poll conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that 85 percent of Iraqis don't believe that the political parties represent their opinions. Even so, moderate, educated Iraqis seem willing to give the body a chance. What choice do they have? Events are spinning out of control. Unemployment is 60 percent; water and electricity are frequently disrupted. Saddam is on the radio. And for the first time last week, a top American military commander, Gen. John Abizaid, conceded that Saddam's followers are waging a classical guerrilla war.
As with all deliberative bodies, the council is sure to have some problems reaching a consensus. Some so-called local Iraqis on the body have little political or administrative experience and may be out of their depth on some issues. "Sometimes the local members look a little stunned," said the Iraqi source. "Bremer brought two of the women delegates to a meeting on economic policy and you could see they had no idea what the experts were talking about." They'll need to learn and act fast to put Iraq on the road to self-governance.