Monday, November 17, 2003

The occupation finally has an exit date: July 1st.

Iraq's Governing Council agreed Saturday to a timetable putting itself and Ambassador Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority out of business by the end of June. In their place will be a provisional government with full sovereign powers and also direct elections for people who will write a permanent constitution for the country.

But coalition forces now face a new challenge: convincing most Iraqis that they will truly have their own independent government by next summer even as the military maintains a presence in Iraq and Americans continue to live and work here ostensibly ensuring that $19 billion in aid is spent appropriately.

"If the Americans are still in charge, this is still an occupation," said Sheikh Abdul al Salam al Kubaisi, the alama for all Sunni imams in Iraq. He is also dean of a college for imams near the Abu Hanifa in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad that saw some of the worst fighting during the war.

It'll be interesting to see whether this new government will be held in higher regard than the US-appointed Governing Council, which is dominated by exiles. US forces are under daily attack by insurgents who want the Americans out as soon as possible. The thinking is that peace and stability will arrive as soon as Iraqis see Americans handing over political power to Iraqis and putting Iraqis in charge of their own security.

Exile number one would be Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress and a council member with close ties to the Pentagon. His name is often mentioned here in connection with an 11-year old bank fraud conviction in Jordan, which he says was politically motivated. Well aware of his liabilities, Chalabi seems to be pushing hard for grass roots approval of the new government - surely he thinks he will have another shot at power, say some journalists here who have nicknamed him "the man who would be king."

"We will form a coordination committee of Iraqis appointed by Iraqis without CPA intervention," Chalabi said Saturday, describing plans for how delegates to the provisional government will ultimately be selected. "The majority will be appointed by Iraqis who have representatives in the provinces. We will have some input … this new body must not be controlled or must not be cast in the image of the Governing Council or any other political party."

So far, though, the average person on the street will tell you they want to see results, not hear more promises.

It's difficult for many to see how they will benefit from a government process most of them find remote. Also, there is fierce Iraqi pride or nationalism here and as long as they perceive Americans are pulling strings behind the scenes, they will assign ulterior motives to their every move.

Raad Salman Humood al-Bakri, 52, sells and prints books for a living. Unlike many other Iraqis, he actually thinks the Governing Council should have been given more of a chance.

"They need more time to work. If we have another interim government this will turn Iraq upside down. This will create chaos because it will be like starting from the beginning," said al-Bakri, a member of Iraq's Shi'ite majority. "The council is working under an occupation, and they need more authority and freedom to gain the trust of the Iraqi people.

"It is not America’s business to decide about delegates, interim governments and elections – all this should be decided by Iraqi people," al-Bakri said.

"Iraq needs one Iraqi leader who knows Iraq well, who should not care about religion, sects, nationality, who has the sincere ability to unite Iraq. We don’t need only promises but someone to achieve these promises. I don’t care who will rule us, Sunni or Shia, but we need a leader."

Maybe the unknown prime minister that the council is thinking about appointing next month (according to Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader and this month's council president) will be a first step.