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1958 coup anniversary { July 14 2003 }

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July 14, 2003
U.S. - Backed Iraqi Governing Council Meets

Filed at 8:10 a.m. ET

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraq took a confident step down an uncertain path toward democracy with the founding of a broadly representative governing council, even as fresh violence struck U.S. forces trying to bring stability to the country.

One soldier was killed and six wounded in an attack by insurgents firing multiple rocket-propelled grenades at their convoy early Monday, said Spc. Giovanni Llorente, a military spokesman. The wounded were brought to a military hospital. Also Monday, the military said a marine in southern Iraq died in a non-hostile incident. It provided no details.

The violence followed an apparent failed car-bombing Monday night on a police station full of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police, local police said.

A white Volkswagen was destroyed and a badly mangled and headless body lay nearby, said police Sgt. Adel Shakir. He said the body was thought to have been one of two men who were attempting to get the explosive-packed car near the station.

The governing council -- which brings together Iraq's diverse mosaic of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and ethnic Turks -- met for the first time Sunday. It planned to meet later Monday to name a leader.

Monday is also the anniversary of a bloody coup in 1958 when King Faisal II, Iraq's last king, was killed by nationalists, launching years of political unrest. It is an occasion that had been celebrated under Saddam Hussein, but pro-monarchists in Baghdad on Monday mourned the date.

Thousands of people -- including Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- attended a ceremony in honor of the possible successor to the throne, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, who greeted well-wishers at his palatial headquarters.

In a deeply symbolic first public action, the governing council on Sunday set April 9 -- the day Baghdad fell to U.S. forces -- as a national holiday and banned celebrations on six dates important to Saddam and his Baath Party. And the act was announced, significantly, by a prominent Shiite cleric. Shiites, long oppressed by Saddam, now dominate the 25-member council.

``The establishment of this council represents the Iraqi national will after the collapse of the dictatorial regime,'' said the cleric, Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum from the holy southern city of Najaf.

The council will have real political muscle, with the power to name ministers and approve the 2004 budget. But final control of Iraq still rests with L. Paul Bremer -- the U.S. administrator of Iraq and a major architect of the council.

With the U.S. military still struggling on the security front establishment of the council was a major political step, giving an Iraqi face to the U.S.-led occupation of the country. American administrators had changed plans several times in the past months, wavering over how much authority to give the new body, which fueled a feeling among many Iraqis that the Americans had come as colonizers, not liberators.

The head of the Arab League questioned what powers the council would have in a nation under U.S. occupation.

``If this council was elected, it would have gained much power and credibility,'' Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said in a statement released Sunday night.

The Arab League was deeply divided by the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam and Moussa's ambivalence toward a council seen as pro-U.S. reflected wider Arab wariness about U.S. intentions in Iraq.

As the new members of the council were introduced at the Baghdad Convention Center, Bremer stood and applauded from the front row. But he made no comment, a move designed to lower the American profile.

Council member Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister, said he does not expect Bremer to veto council decisions and believed negotiations would settle all disputes.

Still to be seen is whether the council can convince the Iraqi people that it represents them, even though they never had a chance to vote on its members. Coalition leaders say an election in Iraq is not yet practical.

On the same day as the inauguration, U.S. forces launched their latest sweep in cities and towns of central Iraq, hunting for Saddam loyalists amid expectations of anti-U.S. attacks to mark a number of Baathist holidays this week. The military on Monday said 226 people had been captured in the sweep, dubbed Operation Ivy Serpent.

It said six former regime leaders were among them. None, however, appeared to be part of a list of 55 most wanted fugitives from the old regime. No Iraqi civilians or coalition troops have been killed in the operation.

Images of Sunday's inauguration were broadcast live by Western and Arab satellite television, received in about 40 percent of homes in Baghdad.

The council includes 13 Shiites, five Kurds, five Sunnis, one Christian and one Turkoman. Three members are women. Shiites make up a 60 percent majority of Iraq's 24 million population, but they have never ruled the country and suffered deeply under Saddam's minority Sunni government.

``I helped deliver thousands of Iraqi babies, and now I am taking part in the birth of a new country and a new rule based on women's rights, humanity, unity and freedom,'' said Raja Habib al-Khuzaai, one of the female council members and the director of a maternity hospital in southern Iraq.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, called the day ``historic,'' and said the country was ``moving back to where it rightfully belongs, at peace with itself and a member of the community of nations.''

De Mello was the only Westerner to speak at the session, and his appearance on the stage was seen as a gesture to the United Nations, which had refused to sanction the U.S.-led invasion.

Ahmad Chalabi, founder of the once-exiled Iraqi National Congress, condemned attacks on American forces in the country. ``The Iraqi people consider them forces of liberation and they don't consider these attacks as acts of resistance,'' Chalabi said.

Along with Chalabi and Pachachi, the council includes other well-known figures Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, leaders of the two main Kurdish groups.

The council, however, is dominated by lesser known Iraqis, many of whom remained in their country during Saddam's 23-year dictatorship.

The panel is meant to be the forerunner of a 200-250 member constitutional assembly that is planned to start in September drawing up a draft constitution, a process expected to take nine months to a year. Iraqis would then vote on the draft in a national referendum. Free elections to pick a government are expected to follow.

On Monday, the Indian government rejected a U.S. request for Indian peacekeeping troops in Iraq, saying such a deployment would be considered only under a U.N. mandate.

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