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    Council vows to establish new Iraq


    Los Angeles Times

    BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a relaxed, smiling gathering far removed from the fear-tinged meetings presided over by Saddam Hussein, Iraq's new governing council convened for the first time Sunday.

    The 22 men and three women drawn from Iraq's main ethnic and sectarian communities promptly abolished six state holidays decreed by the former regime. In their place, the council declared April 9 – the date Hussein was driven from power – as the country's new national day.

    Although the council was not popularly elected – and ultimate authority remains in the hands of the U.S.-led occupation authority – the panel portrayed itself as the new, true face of the Iraqi people.

    Its members vowed to usher in an era that will lead to a democratic constitution and a permanent, representative government to rebuild the country and help it live at peace with its neighbors.

    The council called on Arab countries that had criticized the U.S.-led war to oust Hussein to set aside their animosity and accept that the former regime is finished.

    Council members also chided Arab-world satellite TV stations, in particular the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel, for allegedly stoking anger at the United States rather than helping Iraqis end Hussein's long reign.

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    Perhaps the most striking image of the day was the panoply of council members – men in business suits and colorful ties, women in scarves, turbaned clerics and Arab tribal figures in flowing white robes – taking their seats informally in a semi-circle, grinning and collegially interacting with reporters and one another.

    It was a far cry from gatherings of the Ba'ath Party hierarchy, where uniformed officers and party members bowed and scraped for fear of incurring Hussein's wrath. Instead, the council members exhibited a sense of civility and democracy as they spoke of the challenges ahead. Their backdrop was a huge map of Iraq painted red, white and black — the national colors.

    The council chose as its temporary chairman moderate Shiite cleric Seyyid Muhammed Bahr Uloon, a white-bearded, elfin figure whose eyes crinkled mirthfully as he announced, to applause, the abolition of the Baathist state holidays. Although Shiites constitute 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, they had never been allowed to play a dominant role in national politics in modern times.

    "Never is Saddam Hussein going to come back," he declared in answer to an Al Jazeera reporter's question. "Saddam is on the dustbin of history, and there is no going back."

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    Another prominent council member, returned exile Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, was interrupted by a shout of "Long live Bush" from one member of the audience when he decried the attacks that have taken place against U.S. forces in the country in recent weeks.

    "I take this opportunity to express my gratitude and the gratitude of the Iraqi people to President Bush, the U.S. Congress and the people of the United States for helping the Iraqi people to liberate themselves from the scourge of Saddam," he said to loud applause.

    "Acts of violence against coalition forces in Iraq are not 'resistance,"' he said. "I condemn these acts of violence and look forward to enabling the Iraqi people to release their enormous energy ... so that the Iraqi people will take upon themselves the removal of the party and the removal of the remnants of Saddam's forces."

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    The council — which will have the power to appoint interim ministers, help draft the national budget and set broad national policy — was constituted in nine weeks of consultations and sometimes hardball negotiations between leading Iraqi politicians and the chief U.S. civil administrator of the country, L. Paul Bremer III.

    Bremer applauded the council from his front-row seat at the national Conference Center on the west side of the Tigris River, but he did not address the audience.

    The United Nation's special representative to Iraq, Sergio de Vieira de Mello, however, did offer some remarks to the new council.

    "There are defining moments in history," he said. "For Iraq, today is definitely one of those. It is thus only fitting that you let it be known that Iraq is moving back to where it rightfully belongs: at peace with itself and as a full participant in the community of nations."

    He pledged U.N. support to the council.

    One of the female council members, obstetrician Habib Khuzaai, sought to capture the sense of historical moment of the session.

    "I have helped deliver thousands of Iraqi babies, and now I am participating in the birth of a new country and a new rule based on women's rights, humanity, unity and freedom," she said, in answer to a question from an audience member who accused the United States of having shown scant regard for Iraqi suffering in the past decade.

    As the council begins its work, it is facing two significant questions: Will the Iraqi people regard it as a legitimate body, or merely as an instrument of the U.S.-led occupation? And will it have sufficient power to assert its will on the occupation authority?

    Council members pledged to begin work immediately to take on the country's chief problems, such as restoring security and basic services, and to launch a process for drafting a new constitution.

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    One possible cloud hanging over the assembly is the feeling of some Iraqis that it is too dominated by former political exiles. At least 15 of the 25 members had been political opponents of Saddam living outside Iraq or in the autonomous Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, and did not suffer the effects of sanctions and the political oppression endured by most of the population.

    Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, dismissed any notion that the council would lack power and legitimacy. "We have a lot of powers," he said. Adnan Pachachi, a veteran Iraqi diplomat who left the country after the Baathist takeover in 1968, and at 80 the oldest member of the council, said that he had no fears that Bremer would veto the council's decisions.

    The council convened in private at 11 a.m. in a building that formerly belonged to the Ministry of Military Industrialization — the agency responsible for creating the former Iraqi ruler's war machinery.

    Times staff writer Terry McDermott in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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