Dissident: Iraqis To Take Charge Soon

Dr. Ahmed Chalabi
Iraqi dissident leader Ahmad Chalabi said Friday he sees an Iraqi interim authority taking over government functions from the U.S. military in "weeks rather than months," the latest indication that his Iraqi National Congress is fast positioning itself to win power in postwar Iraq.

Chalabi was vague on the specifics of the immediate process to select such an interim government.

U.S. officials have said the process will include a series of meetings by representatives of different Iraqi groups, the first of which took place Tuesday in the ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in southern Iraq.

However, separate from that process, two Chalabi allies have declared themselves leaders in postwar Iraq this week.

Jaudat Obeidi declared himself the elected mayor of Baghdad and Mohammed Zubeidi said he is Iraq's governor, CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reports. Their authority comes straight from a coalition of clerics, academics, and tribal leaders, they said.

But official acknowledgement from the United States was lacking on Thursday.

"There are a number of emerging leaders throughout Iraq, and the coalition works with a number of them on a variety of levels. I'd like to just leave it at that," said Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.

In the Iraqi capital itself, U.S. Marines spokesman Captain Joe Plenzler told Agence France Presse: "Anyone declaring themselves as mayor or anything else is just not true. The U.S. government has not appointed anyone."

Plenzler said future appointments will be handled by the U.S. agency for International Development, or USAID.

But Central Command will maintain an important role in postwar Iraq. The postwar administration will be headed by a retired general reporting to the war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks.

That interim government will gradually turn over ministries to Iraqi leaders. The U.S. government has said it will allow Iraqis to pick those leaders, but this week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there were broad criteria for who could be part of that government — for example, former Baath party members were not welcome.

Illustrating his role, Franks was the official who decided on the invitation list to the first official meeting to discuss the postwar regime, held Tuesday in Ur. Several thousand Shiite Muslims, organized by some dissident groups who boycotted the meeting, protested the meeting and the prominent U.S. role.

Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi did not attend the Tuesday meeting but sent a representative. Chalabi has been critical of the U.S. role so far, implying that Jay Garner, the retired general heading the interim authority, has waited too long to take charge of the country.

Chalabi's aide, Zubaidi, convened a group of leaders in Baghdad on Monday, beating the first U.S.-led postwar meeting by a day.

Chalabi is considered a possible candidate for a leading role in postwar Iraq. He has said he is not seeking such a role, and U.S. officials deny he has been handpicked for one.

"We're certainly not interested, as our president has said, in anointing anyone," Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman said in an interview with Free Iraqi state television on Wednesday. "And we're not picking the people who should be the leaders of Iraq. That is a job for the Iraqi people to do."

But Chalabi is said to be favored by some Republicans. The U.S. military flew him to southern Iraq last week from the north of the country, where he arrived before the war began. Chalabi gathered a force of 700 fighters there. He arrived in Baghdad on Thursday.

On Friday, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress followers set up makeshift headquarters at two neighboring social clubs in the affluent Mansour district, guarded by U.S. armored vehicles and elements of the new Free Iraqi forces.

Chalabi is reported to be less favored by the State Department. He has not spent much time in the country since his exile began in 1958, and a 2001 State Department audit found that more than $2 million of the $17 million in U.S. funding to the INC had been assigned to "questionable expenses."

A subsequent audit found that financial controls had improved somewhat. The INC was awarded another $8 million in funding last year, but $3.1 million of that was recently redirected by the State Department to other postwar activities.

Chalabi is not the only dissident active in Iraq. Shiites leaders are also stepping forward, and there are two rival quasi-governments in the Kurdish-controlled north. Real democracy, some analysts contend, will take time to sort out.

"There is no quick fix for contemporary Iraq," said Fouad Ajami, a CBS News analyst, who forsees problems for those who have returned to the country after long absences. "There are many, many Iraqis who endured the brutality of Saddam Hussein who question whether the exiles have the right to rule."

Among the skeptics are people like Wamidh Nadhmi, who told Rather he "would like very much to know who are those people and who elected him."

"At least one could admit that among some of those people are qualified people with education, even some people with integrity," he said. "None of the people who have been appointed up to now are of this category."