When the new Governing Council of Iraq was announced in Baghdad Sunday afternoon, July 13, it was greeted as mis-, dis- or virtual information. It either belies, masks or predicts the real power in the country. This “interim administration,” as the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority describes it, will presumably now set about defining the shape and character of a new Iraqi government.
Meanwhile, the shape and character of the American footprint in this conquered land grew a little smudged, which was the whole idea. Cosmetically, diplomatically or wisely, the American viceroy, Paul Bremer, did not make the announcement naming the Iraqi council himself but let the job fall to a United Nations special representative. With the twenty-five members of the Governing Council seated in a semicircle on the stage of the Convention Center, an auditorium that wouldn’t be out of place at Lincoln Center but has better acoustics, the UN’s Sergio Vieira de Mello called the occasion one of those “defining moments in history.” The Convention Center, which seats more than 2,000, was about one-quarter filled with wanded and patted-down press and interested foreigners as well as carefully screened approving Iraqis. Bremer himself was positioned in the front row, flanked by a security detachment that would do honor to a Latin caudillo, looking enameled and pleased.
A number of the new members of the Governing Council made statements about their hopes for imminent self-government, dutifully translated from the stage. Some wore tribal headdress, others business suits; one of the women was veiled, while the other two wore conservative outfits. Despite complaints that many of the new Governing Council members had sat out the Saddam Hussein years in exile, the only one who didn’t look indigenously Iraqi was Ahmad Chalabi, who dressed as the Washington lobbyist he is.
The questions from the floor that followed the presentation of the interim administration were not really questions at all but statements reflecting opinions in the auditorium. An Iraqi woman arose to say, in Arabic, “Thank you, United States,” after which she shouted “Long live Bush!” three times. A man stated that the Governing Council “is the first authority that has any legitimacy, because it reflects the spectrum of Iraqi society and should win Arab League support.” A European woman asked whether the Iraqis would really have any power or if the real power remained with the Americans. The question of the day, of course. A member of the Governing Council replied that this was an evolving process. The answer of the day. Then an angry Irish member of a peace group pretty much concluded the occasion by asking how the United States could be trusted to keep its word on anything when it is responsible for the scourge of “Iraqi blood…cheapened to the point where it is seen as expendable.” She might have been in Belfast.
Bremer’s British deputy, John Sawers, gave a brief interview to a few reporters in which he defended the representativeness of the Governing Council by pointing out that it included the leaders of Iraq’s fourteen political parties. When asked why there weren’t more women on the council, he had a ready stat at hand: “The United States Congress has 14 percent women, and this council has 12 percent. This is double the representation of women in the government of any Arab country. Increasingly the well-educated women will assert themselves. Look, this isn’t perfect, but it is a representative body, and elections will come.” I asked what the next step is, and who will take it. “The council will set in motion the process of drafting a constitution. The coalition has its responsibilities, and the Governing Council has its own responsibilities.” Neither the Delphic oracle nor Tony Blair, aficionados of ambiguity in the ancient and modern worlds, could have put it better.
Opinions in the street were mixed. A 22-year-old GI from Ohio on patrol along a Baghdad boulevard said, “I guess this is going to be pretty much a puppet group, right?” An Iraqi intellectual, recently returned from thirty-four years in exile, said hopefully, “This is the first thing the Americans have done right.” An unemployed Iraqi journalist said he was dubious: “Let’s see deeds, not words.” The councilmembers themselves were impressive enough, except for Chalabi, and appeared earnest and determined. I allowed myself to wonder whether the coalition and Iraq itself might possibly have turned a corner–or was this simply a show?
The following day, in an interview at a coalition office, I was told that Bremer had been heard to remark in his morning staff meeting that he “absolutely could not believe” what the Irish woman said about the cheapness of Iraqi blood to Americans. I was just thinking I might have to upgrade the description of Bremer from simply enameled to the look of enameled arrogance attributed to Lord Curzon, the last Victorian viceroy of India, when outside the office we were in, a grenade exploded, frivolously destroying the parked Audi of the Tunisian ambassador. No one was hurt.