Mixed Arab Reaction to Iraqi National Council

The Arab League (search) chief showed little eagerness to embrace a new U.S.-backed Iraqi national council as its people's representative, reflecting wider Arab wariness about America's intentions in Iraq.

But other Arabs welcomed the council as an important first step that, as Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher told reporters in his capital Monday, could "lead to the formation of an Iraqi government representative of all the country, elected by the Iraqi people and away from sectarian representation."

A Foreign Ministry official in Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1990 and was among the Arab states most enthusiastic about his fall, said Monday that the council "expresses the will of the Iraqi people."

Qatar called on the international community to support the council, according to a Qatari Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In an internationally televised ceremony a day earlier, a 25-member governing council bringing together Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and ethnic Turks was introduced in Baghdad. The council's makeup was ironed out in negotiations involving U.S. officials and Iraqis who had opposed Saddam.

Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the Saudi newspaper Arab News, said that even though it was not elected, the council was representative.

Arabs "recognized Saddam and he was not representative of the Iraqi people," al-Maeena said. "Arabs should not be two-faced."

Most Arab leaders, like Saddam, gained power by force or birth, not elections.

If the new Iraqi council had been elected, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (search) said in a statement released by the league Sunday night, "it would have gained much power and credibility."

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. was not unexpected. Sunday, members of the new Iraqi council appealed to the Arab League and other Arabs to work with them, saying they did not want to be isolated.

The Iraqi council, which was to meet Monday to name a leader, has the power to name ministers and approve the 2004 budget, but L. Paul Bremer (search), a former State Department anti-terrorism official who took over the civilian operation in Iraq on May 12, has the last word on Iraq's affairs. The council is meant to be the forerunner of a larger constitutional assembly that will have about a year to draft a new constitution.

Moussa said he hoped the council would be a step toward "regaining Iraqi sovereignty and the emergence of a new Iraq governed by the sons of its people and toward an end to occupation." But he said its powers were not yet clear, and added that the league and the Arab world would "closely monitor" its work.

Arabs have called for a greater role for the United Nations in post-Saddam Iraq and kept their distance from the U.S. administration in Iraq.

Members of the new Iraqi council portrayed U.S. forces as liberators, not occupiers.

"This people ... has decided to rule itself and to end the era of dictatorship and establish a democratic federal system that respects human rights and to protect the peace with the Iraqi people and with the neighbors," Ahmad Chalabi told reporters Sunday.

Elsewhere, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Moscow was ready for "contacts" with the new Iraq council. The statement did not refer to diplomatic ties or otherwise specify the type of contacts.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was visiting Jordan Monday, told reporters the new council was a welcome step that should be followed by "the creation of a legitimate authority" and greater U.N. involvement in Iraq. Russia had opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.