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Baghdad Meeting to Set Up Council to Monitor Iraq Government - 2004-08-13


A thousand delegates are to meet at a national conference in Baghdad on Sunday to choose a special council. It will monitor the activities of the interim government and serve as a sort of watchdog. The meeting was supposed to happen two weeks ago, but the organizers delayed it at the request of the United Nations.

For months, political parties and interest groups have been wrangling over who gets to take part in the national conference. A thousand delegates are supposed to represent all parts of Iraqi society in deciding who will keep an eye on the government until next year's elections.

But several very influential groups decided to boycott the gathering, because, they claimed, the selection of participants was unfair. The controversy over who would take part contributed to the call by the United Nations for a two-week delay. Organizers had hoped to use the time to convince the groups to take part. It is not clear whether they have made any progress.

Amatzia Baram is an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington. Even given the controversy over participation, he says, the national conference is an important step on the way to elections and, eventually, a government with what he calls "public legitimacy."

"Certainly, it's a worthwhile effort," Mr. Baram says. "The fact that people are fighting in order to be included is positive. This is politics. It isn't always neat. But at least people realize it's an important development and that this gathering, this national congress of 1,000 people will be very important for the future of Iraq. So, I would say this is very positive."

But not everybody is positive about the national conference or the council it will appoint.

"I think it is a waste of time," said professor Nabeal Younis, who teaches political science at Baghdad University.

"First of all, it's very difficult to talk about a national conference," he added. "It's not a national conference. You can say it is a government conference, a party conference, or whatever you want to say about it. I don't think there is any significance of such a conference or any use of such a conference, simply because the members of such a conference are appointed by one person or by a small committee, preparation committee. Nobody knows (by) what standards they are choosing the people to be members in this conference."

Professor Younis is similarly skeptical about the national council that will be appointed at the meeting. Although it is supposed to serve as a sort of parliament, he says it will lack any legislative powers, and, therefore, leave too much power concentrated in the hands of the interim government.

The editor-in-chief of a local newspaper, Addustour, is also not convinced about the council's usefulness. Bassem al-Shekh thinks its main purpose is what he calls "decoration."

He says, "This national council, it is supposed to watch the activities of the Cabinet. But the Cabinet is in its third month, and nobody has monitored its work so far."

Ideally, Mr. al-Shekh says, the national council should have been formed before the government, not the reverse.

But other Iraqis remain hopeful that the national council will make a difference. Progressive Shiite cleric Ayad Jamal al-Din will be taking part in the national conference, and he believes it will succeed despite the limitations of its mandate.

"The powers of this council are very limited. We cannot consider it a parliament, he said. "But I think it completes the political process for now, along with the president and the Cabinet. All of these things represent the new future of Iraq."

Members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council wrote the law that created the national council, and they decided that they should all have seats in the council. That also has created some controversy. One senior government official privately criticized the decision in a conversation with VOA, saying that because the Governing Council was appointed by the Americans, their presence on the national council could give the impression that it is not independent.

Governing Council members defend the decision, and say the council can benefit from the experience they have gained over the last year. They also deny that they represent any interest other than that of the Iraqi people.

Governing Council member Songul Chapook says her particular concern in deciding on the composition of the national council was making sure that women would be adequately represented.

"I think that for the national council, also, I was worried about women," he said. "We need to listen to them, and to know what they need and what they want from the government. We made a condition for parties, that they have to put 25 percent of their lists from women."

The law says at least 25 percent of the national council members must be women, but Mrs. Chapook is hoping the final number will be higher than that. After all, she says, 58 percent of Iraqis are female, and they have historically had little say in the political system.

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