Iraq's first post-war interim leadership held its inaugural meeting in Baghdad on Sunday in a historic step toward national elections. The creation of the Iraqi governing council is stirring both optimism and skepticism among the Iraqi people.
Twenty-five prominent Iraqis from major political, ethnic and religious groups took their seats on the governing council on Sunday, promising to share the responsibility of rebuilding Iraq's shattered economy and guiding it toward a democratic future.
They include experienced politicians, exile leaders who have returned and opposition leaders, united by their suffering under ousted leader Saddam Hussein.
Fourteen of the council members are Shiite Muslims, representing the country's Shiite Muslim majority. Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority has just four seats on the council, reversing more than three decades of Sunni domination in Iraqi government under Saddam.
The council also has five Kurds, one Turkmen, and one Christian. Three of the members are women, who will look after issues concerning Iraqi women.
At a press conference held after the council's first meeting, a prominent Shiite clergyman and council member, Seyyid Mohammed Bahr ul-Uloom, urged all Iraqis to participate in the building of a peaceful and stable post-Saddam Iraq.
The cleric said the building of a new Iraq should be the people's first priority. He said it will require everyone's participation if they are to accomplish the task.
The head of the U.S.-led provisional government, Paul Bremer, stayed in the background of Sunday's events. The administration has been eager to portray the council as a homegrown political body, even if the council is required to consult provisional authorities on all important issues.
The legitimacy of the unelected governing council is considered crucial to coalition efforts to bring democracy to Iraq. Among the council's responsibilities will be to draft a constitution as quickly as possible so that national elections can be held.
But some Iraqis say they have strong doubts about the credibility of the new governing council. A mechanical engineer in Baghdad, Yaroub Abaas Abdul Al-Latif, said the council members will never represent the Iraqi people because they were not elected.
"Who are these people?" Mr. Latif asks. He said he believes they were hand-picked by the Americans to do their bidding.
Another Iraqi, Ahmed David Al-Mathidi, said he wants to reserve judgment, until he sees what the council can accomplish. "Really, I don't know what they are willing to do, but I think that we must work together to save this country," he said.
Council members say they will begin work immediately, with meetings on Monday to decide whether the council would have one president or a rotating chair.
The council did pass one resolution on Sunday, canceling all public holidays associated with Saddam's Baathist regime. Instead, April 9, the day Saddam was ousted by coalition forces, will be celebrated as a national holiday.