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Since 1st March, 1999
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Council debuts with curtains on Saddam
New governors under US eyes

Baghdad, July 13 (Reuters): A US-backed Iraqi governing council held its inaugural meeting today, stressing the start of a new era by abolishing national holidays that honoured Saddam Hussein and creating a new one to mark his downfall.

The 25-member interim council has the ability to appoint ministers, approve the national budget and review laws, although ultimate authority remains with the occupying powers that have ruled Iraq since US-led forces toppled Saddam on April 9. “Saddam has been tossed into the rubbish bin of history and will not be coming back,” said Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, a Shia cleric and council member, many of whose relatives were killed by Saddam’s government.

“There are defining moments in history and today, for Iraq, is definitely one of them,” Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative for Iraq, told the council. It remains to be seen whether ordinary Iraqis think the council can represent their interests, though it does roughly reflect Iraq’s religious and ethnic composition, giving Shias a majority in contrast to their position under Saddam.

Saddam and most members of his elite were Sunnis who marginalised the traditionally under-privileged Shias.

As the council met in a government building in Baghdad, the US military said it had launched Operation Ivy Serpent to prevent militants staging anti-American attacks on upcoming anniversaries linked to Iraqi nationalism and Saddam.

The new council comprises 13 Shias, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds, an Assyrian Christian and a Turkman. Three members are women and 16 have either returned from exile or were in an autonomous Kurdish area outside Saddam’s control.

“The launch of the governing council will mean that Iraqis play a more central role in running their country,” US administrator Paul Bremer said in a statement late yesterday.

The administration sees the formation of the council as a first step on the road to democracy for Iraq. Further down the road lies the drafting of a new constitution, to be approved by a referendum, and finally free elections.

Bremer, who attended the meeting, said the council would bring together for the first time in Iraq’s history “a balanced representative group of political leaders from across this country”.

Washington hopes daily attacks on US troops in mainly Sunni central Iraq will decline if Iraqis feel the US and British occupying powers are empowering local leaders.

The US blames die-hard Saddam loyalists for the attacks, but many Iraqis have been expressing frustration at what they say has been a slowness to return government to Iraqis and rebuild the war-battered country.

The latest military operation, launched last night, is the fourth conducted by the US military since the toppling of Saddam to crack down on armed resistance to the occupation.

“Operation Ivy Serpent is a pre-emptive strike that aggressively focuses on non-compliant forces and former regime leaders,” a military spokesman said.

US officers say they have intelligence that assailants are planning attacks to coincide with anniversaries including a July 14 coup in 1958 against a British-backed monarchy, Saddam assuming the presidency on July 16, 1979, and a revolution staged by his Baath Party on July 17, 1968.

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