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One month and counting

International | IRAQ: After yet another assassination of a Governing Council member, uncertainty reigns in the final weeks before the transfer of power. But transfer to whom? "We don't have a clue," some Iraqis complain

Issue: "Memorial Day 2004," May 29, 2004

It is like unto creed in Washington that, no matter the level of disorder in Iraq, come June 30 sovereignty over their own country will be handed back to Iraqis.

"Terrorists are trying to stop Iraq's march to sovereignty and peace. They will not succeed," U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said at a memorial service in Baghdad for Izzadine Saleem. The 61-year-old president of the Iraqi Governing Council was killed in a bomb attack on May 17 just outside coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

What's less clear is who will actually lead the Iraqi government. The council's 25 members have faced continual threats because they are perceived as puppets of the U.S. occupying force. At the same time, much of their authority remains subject to U.S. veto.

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Mr. Saleem, regarded as a conciliator from Iraq's oldest Shiite party, Dawa Islamiya, was the second council member assassinated since the United States took control of Iraq. Council member Aquila Hashimi was shot in front of her home last September and later died of her wounds.

Other important leaders also have been killed in terror attacks. The leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, was among about 100 people killed in a Najaf car bombing last August. Senior Kurdish leader Sami Abdul Rahman was killed in twin January bombings in Irbil that killed 100.

If council status is no guarantee of safety, it is also not a promise of job security. Crafted almost formulaically to reflect Iraq's ethnic makeup, the 25-member body operates almost like an in-country UN, with its appointed delegates from nearly every ethnic and political stripe in Iraq owning at least one seat at the table, and the presidency rotating every month. Everyone expects the interim body to be abolished by July 1, but as yet there is no publicized plan of what will follow.

From the beginning the council experienced the expected tensions among ethnic rivals, and among Shiites and Sunnis. Less expected: bitter tensions between council members who lived in Iraq under Saddam and those who chose exile. Unexpected: that 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, an Assyrian Christian, and a Turkmen-among them hardliners, secularists, a communist, a socialist, men, and women-could agree on anything.

Yet the council has appointed 24 also-diverse cabinet ministers. It oversees important aspects of the national budget. And, most significantly, it successfully passed an interim constitution that should chart national affairs post-June 30, leading up to January 2005 elections.

To build on those achievements, the United States should have handed council members increasing authority in the lead-up to transition. Instead, say Iraqis and Americans working in Iraq-including many who support the war-it is babysitting those who will eventually run the country. Mr. Bremer has run Iraq as a "plenipotentiary," critics assert, leaving no room for the country's post-Saddam leadership to begin to emerge. U.S. administrators disbanded pro-American militias, including those organized by council members and, in some cases, funded by the Pentagon. It disassembled the bureaucracy, leaving in limbo vital functions like border control.

"We could have walked away from this after the war, and the Iraqis could have done well for themselves," said Richard M. Naab, who served under Mr. Bremer as CPA northern Iraq coordinator until December. "We mouth phrases like, 'Let Iraqis take over' but we have not been willing to do that," Mr. Naab told WORLD: "Now you have senior Iraqi officials coming to Washington, and when I say, 'How are we going to do the transition? How will it work?' they say, 'We don't have a clue.'"

If council members harbor unpublicized antipathy to the current U.S.-Iraq administration, they can find little reason to be more optimistic about his replacement, Ambassador-to-be John Negroponte, another career U.S. diplomat who speaks no Arabic and has never been posted in the Arab world.

But they complain openly about the other follow-on, UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi. Senior Shiite councilmember Mohammed Bahr al-Ulum says Iraqis will oppose American efforts to grant power to the UN post-June 30.

"The Iraqis are not minors and do not need a guardian, nor are they a flock of 27 million sheep to be directed by [Mr. Brahimi] and the coalition," he said.

U.S. officials hail Mr. Brahimi as a well-shod diplomat whose credentials suit him to supervising Iraq's reentry in the Arab world. Iraqis aren't so generous. Mr. Brahimi is "an Algerian with a nationalist agenda," council member Ahmad Chalabi told Fox News. "He is not a unifying person."

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