02 September 2003
Iraq's "Governing Council" finally appointed a 25-member cabinet yesterday, after a month and a half of squabbling over who would get which jobs.
But the ministers will have little real power. That will remain in the hands of Paul Bremer, the US administrator, and the American occupation authority. The ministers, like the US-appointed council, appear to be a public relations exercise to reassure Iraqis that America does plan to hand power to an Iraqi government.
The council is already deeply unpopular with Iraqis, and its members hide away in heavily guarded offices. A cabinet packed with council members' cronies and appointees is unlikely to win support from Iraqis, many of whom say Mr Bremer's hand-picked council simply does not represent them.
But the appointments may mean that reconstruction work, which contractors were told had been put on hold until the new ministers were appointed, can finally go ahead.
With carefully crafted symbolism, the new ministries have been shared out among Iraq's ethnic groups according to their population sizes. It is meant to send the message that power is no longer be concentrated in the hands of Saddam Hussein's Sunni supporters and that Iraq is united. Shias, the largest ethnic group in Iraq, get 13 ministries, the Kurds and the Sunnis five each, with a single ministry each for a Turkoman and a Christian.
But the symbolism was undermined when the faction leaders on the council made clear that they felt the posts lacked authority, by declining to take them. Instead, they appointed their deputies and representatives to the positions.
The senior role of foreign minister went to a Kurd, Hoshyar al-Zibari, from Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The all-important oil ministry was given to a Shia, Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum an appointment that would be open to charges of nepotism were it not for the fact that Mr Ulum's father, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, had just resigned from the council in protest at the Americans' failure to prevent the car bomb that killed 125 people including a senior Shia cleric in Najaf on Friday.
The length of time that it took the council, six weeks, to come up with yesterday's appointments will do nothing to improve its standing among Iraqis. "We want the Americans to go and take the Governing Council with them," Salman Hater, a trader at Baghdad's book market, said.
Many Iraqis are unhappy because the council is full of Iraqi opposition leaders who returned from exile after the fall of Saddam. "We want people from inside Iraq, who were suffering like us," said Qais Atta, a young Shia.
Others were concerned about the murky past of some council members, in particular Ahmed Chalabi, who is wanted in connection with a multimillion-dollar fraud at the Petra Bank in Jordan. "As far as we are concerned, all of the council are looters," said Sabah al-Bahadi, a Shia shopkeeper in Sadr City. "Ahmed Chalabi is the looter of Petra Bank. Even though he is a Shia, we reject him."
Mr Chalabi managed to compound his unpopularity by using his first speech to thank the Americans for occupying Iraq, which did not go down well with Iraqis who had been bombed by the Americans. The council's first decision was to cancel all Iraqi national holidays and name 9 April, the date of Saddam's overthrow, as a holiday. "How can any country celebrate the day on which its capital was occupied by foreigners?" one Iraqi asked angrily.
Then there were the weeks of arguing over who got what jobs. First the members couldnot agree who would be leader so they agreed to appoint nine leaders, who would share the presidency on a rotating basis. They then failed to agree on who would be leader first, so it had to be alphabetical order.
But the council's biggest problem is its ties with America. "Who elected them?" asked Mr Atta. "They are a tool in the United States' hand."
Banners in the southern city of Basra read: "Yes to an elected council, no to an appointed council". Many in Iraq will clearly view the ministers named yesterday as merely American appointees.