Postwar Iraqi Politicking Heats Up

Iraqis shout anti-U.S. slogans at a square near the Palestine Hotel, where foreign journalists are staying in Baghdad, April 13 2003.
Opposition political factions, coordinated by the Iraqi National Congress, are planning a meeting on Tuesday in the southern city of Nasariyah to lay the foundations of what could become a provisional government.

But already, grassroots clerics, returned exiles and the U.S. military have begun to piece together the first elements of a civil administration to replace the ousted Baath Party regime.

The small, informal Baghdad gathering, in a hastily mopped-up coffee shop at the city's dust-coated Palestine Hotel, beat the Nasariyah session by one day.

At the get together, angry, chanting men shouted their disgust with the Americans. Religious and civilian leaders jammed tables together for a first makeshift meeting on Baghdad's problems. Radio and television geared up to go back on air.

There will be "no Sunni, no Shiite, one Iraqi nation," Shiite Muslim clergyman Ayad al-Musawi said in opening the improvised political meeting. "God willing, we will be one hand, one voice and won't betray each other."

Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi of the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of opposition groups, led the gathering of some 20 clerics, police officials, electricity and water board representatives and others, who crowded their molded plastic chairs around assembled restaurant tables.

The few reporters aware of the gathering circled them and listened in, in a meeting so last-minute that the U.S. Marine civil affairs operation on the other side of the Palestine didn't know about it beforehand.

"We have chosen a head of the police," al-Zubaidi said, announcing designation of a police major general, Zuair al-Nuami, as chief. He was said to have previously held a senior position in the police.

"Who do you represent?" an Arab reporter asked al-Zubaidi, whose group has little following inside Iraq. "I represent the people," al-Zubaidi replied.

The INC representative then told the others that Iraq's national radio would resume broadcasting "within hours" and national television within two days.

They also heard from the power and water board representatives that electricity is expected to be restored to east Baghdad in three to four days, and in west Baghdad within a week, and clean water should soon be pumped everywhere.

The Iraqi National Congress has called for Baghdad's policemen to return to their jobs, something a handful had already done. The first patrols, at least four combining U.S. Marines and Iraqi police, cruised through Baghdad on Monday.

In northern Baghdad's Shiite district formerly known as Saddam City, neighborhood clerics organized security networks to guard against the looting that has wracked the city for a week, leaving the skyline marred by towering pillars of black smoke from arson fires.

Any efforts to restore law and order in Baghdad would please the men — mostly businessmen and professionals — who began gathering Saturday in a plaza beside the Marines' headquarters hotel to protest the electricity and water outages crippling this war-battered city, and especially the collapse of law and order.

"We want security!" they chanted Monday.

They held the U.S. invaders responsible for the pillaging of Baghdad that followed the Baath government's fall. Rather than blame fellow Iraqis, rumors spread among the scores of protesters that the Americans brought in Kuwaitis or Iranians to wreck the city's universities, museums and hospitals.

The swift disintegration of President Saddam Hussein's government under a three-week assault by U.S.-British forces left Iraq with a power vacuum filled only by those same military forces.

The Bush administration says it plans to establish a U.S.-led postwar administration led by a retired general, Jay Garner. The administration plans to identify Iraqi leaders and turn over ministries to them one by one, in an effort that some estimate could take as long as six months.

Tuesday's meeting is supposed to be the first of several regional meetings paving the way to a national conference to determine the shape of the future government.

Ahmed Chalabi, a leading Iraqi exile favored by some administration officials for a prominent postwar position, is planning on sending a representative to the meeting rather than attend himself. It is not clear whether that is intended as a snub. Chalabi has been critical of some aspects of the U.S. postwar plan.

The United States has said the United Nations will have a role in the postwar government, but has not specified what type of role. Officials have indicated any role will be advisory at best.