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Iraqi Interim Government Faces Difficult Task Following Power Transfer, say Analysts - 2004-06-03

At the end of this month, the newly installed Iraqi interim government is to gain sovereignty and lead the country to an election and the formation of a permanent government. The caretaker government's first job may be to negotiate exactly what power will be transferred from an occupation authority that has overseen every aspect of Iraqi society for the past year.

A recitation from the Koran by a Muslim cleric began the announcement ceremony on Tuesday, to introduce the members of Iraq's new interim government.

The Koran advises on the importance of having wise leaders take the helm of any new endeavor. It is advice that the new Iraqi minister of health, Ala'adin Alwan, says is not lost on the new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and his 32-member Cabinet.

"The most crucial issue is to develop a vision and strategies for rebuilding. It's a huge responsibility. It's a huge challenge," he said.

A step-by-step transition to self-government began on Tuesday with the dissolving of the largely unpopular U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which had been working with the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority for the past year.

Next month, the interim government is scheduled to convene a national assembly, drawing at least 1,000 Iraqis of various ethnic, religious, professional and academic backgrounds to represent the country's diversity. That assembly, in turn, will choose a council of 100 members, whose job will be to advise the new government, monitor the implementation of laws and approve budgets.

The process is ultimately aimed at laying the groundwork for national elections to be held no later than January 31.

On Wednesday, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, predicted the government he helped create would face many problems as it attempts to unify a divided country.

"The members of this government should know and not forget that they have not been elected, and this places an extremely heavy burden on them," he said. "This government will, therefore, have its work cut out for it."

Observers here say the first thing the government has to do is to negotiate a number of sovereignty-related issues with the outgoing coalition administration and military officials.

Number one on the list is the question of how much power the new government will have over security matters in the country. With nearly 150,000 U.S. and British troops expected to stay in Iraq well beyond June 30, it is still not clear how much control the government will have over what the troops can do and how they conduct their operations.

On Wednesday, Iraqi government officials said the newly appointed foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, was already at the United Nations in New York to negotiate for full Iraqi control over security and the activities of the foreign troops.

Observers say another task for the interim government will be to seek clarification on how much authority Iraqi officials will have in overseeing the government's 31 ministries. Coalition officials have indicated that as many as 160 Americans will stay on as advisers in the ministries past June 30.

The State Department says each Iraqi minister is free to define the powers the advisers have. But critics of the arrangement say the Iraqi ministers may not be willing to challenge the advisers, because most of the funds to run the ministries come from the United States and other foreign donors.

Another matter to be decided is the status of thousands of Iraqi detainees in coalition custody, many of whom have not been charged with any crimes. It is not yet clear if the interim government will be able to determine whether they remain in jail.

Hussain Sharistani is a Shi'ite Muslim Iraqi nuclear scientist, who recently declined to accept the powerful post of interim prime minister.

Mr. Sharistani says he believes the new government, led by two former Governing Council members, will have to negotiate hard with the United States. Otherwise, he says, the Iraqi people will not respect it, as they did not respect the Governing Council for the past year.

"The performance of the Governing Council, and, ultimately, the occupying power in the last year, have not been greatly appreciated by the Iraqi people," he said. "The security situation deteriorated over the last year. Also, people have been extremely upset by the corruption at all levels that have gone on over the year. People hear that there are billions of dollars that have been spent to rebuild the country they cannot physically see. And if the coming months are going to be a continuation of the same performance, perhaps not many people will have much confidence in it."

Observers say the danger now is that a lack of public confidence in the government may severely limit its ability to prepare for the elections, which are seen as crucial to the country's future. They warn that, if the government fails to meet the deadline for elections, the country could plunge further into chaos and violence.