Coalition: Governing Council Ends July 1

The U.S.-appointed Governing Council (searchwill not be allowed to exist beyond July 1, when a provisional Iraqi government with full sovereign powers takes office, coalition officials said, despite the desires of most council members to keep it going.

But some council members have said that calls for the continuation of the council beyond July 1 were primarily voiced by members concerned about losing influence or upsetting their political prospects if they must contest elections.

An agreement signed Nov. 15 by the council and L. Paul Bremer (search), Iraq's chief U.S. administrator, clearly states that the council, installed in July to serve as an interim administration, will cease to exist after the provisional government was formed.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Nov. 15 agreement does not specify that there can't be a second chamber that will hold the "provisional government to account" even if it's not the Governing Council.

Under the agreement, the provisional government will give way to a democratically elected one in three steps: starting with a direct ballot in early 2005 for an assembly to draft a new constitution. Iraqis will vote twice more later that year to adopt the constitution in a referendum and to elect a democratic government.

The coalition officials said any new body created to oversee the process toward a democratically elected government would not have the same powers of the current Governing Council, seen by some Iraqis as a mere tool in the hands of the occupation authorities despite the relatively large leeway given it by Bremer in running the country.

Iraqis also view many council members as "outsiders," exiles who returned to Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein's downfall after spending many years abroad.

Under the Nov. 15 agreement, the council is scheduled to complete by the end of February the draft of a "fundamental law" that will serve as an interim constitution.

The law, according to published guidelines, must protect human rights, freedom of worship and minority rights. It also will recognize Islam as the faith of the majority of Iraq's 25 million people.

The fundamental law is also expected to spell out details such as whether a prime minister or a president will head the country's top executive during the 18 months until a democratically government is elected to office.

Shiite members, meanwhile, wanted the council to stay on because it's the only powerful body that recognizes their newfound strength as representatives of the country's majority and are loathe to see it go.

Thirteen of the council's 25 members are Shiites, five are Sunni Arabs, five are Kurds and there is one each from the country's Christian and ethnic Turkish communities.

The U.S.-led occupation authority has supported the council in public but privately criticized it as slow to make decisions.

Bremer has said council members who wanted to stay in politics beyond July 1 could nominate themselves to regional caucuses that will elect members of a transitional legislature.

Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the council's current president and leader of a powerful Shiite political group, has indicated that he wanted the council to stay on while calling for direct elections to be held for the legislature. However, he appears to have backtracked recently, not mentioning direct voting in public remarks.

The coalition fears that a rushed election could be hijacked by extremist Muslim groups or remnants of Saddam's Baath party. It contends that an elections law, new electoral district boundaries, an elections commission and an accurate voters' register must be in place before a direct vote can be held.