Iraqi council acts for first time
New U.S. operation under way
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's new governing council met Sunday for the first time, and its initial acts were to cancel all holidays "linked to the old dictatorial regime" and name April 9, the date of Saddam Hussein's fall, as a new national holiday.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and special representative to Iraq, hailed the meeting as "one of the defining moments in history."
"It is only fitting that you let it be known Iraq is moving back to where it rightfully belongs: at peace with itself and as a full member in the community of nations," he said.
The 25-member multiethnic, politically diverse council pledged to represent the "national will" of all Iraqis.
The council said it would remain in almost continuous session to handle its work, taking Monday to settle on a meeting schedule and a way to select a president of the council.
Although U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer retains ultimate control over the county, the council is expected to make significant steps toward returning rule to Iraqis, including drafting a constitution that will lead to national elections -- executive powers the Coalition Provisional Authority had initially opposed. It will also appoint government ministers.
"Once our work is over, the reward will be great: a free, democratic and independent Iraq that stands not as a threat to its neighbors or the world, but as a beacon of freedom and justice," Bremer said in a Saturday New York Times opinion article published online Saturday.
But for many Iraqi citizens, the council's most important task will be the restoration of basic services, a task that has already proven daunting to the coalition and led many Iraqis to believe the coalition intends to occupy and colonize their country rather than free it.
Formerly exiled Iraqis hold several seats on the council and that could be met with skepticism by Iraqi citizens who say the exiles did not suffer under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
The council is composed of 13 Shiite Muslims, five Sunni Muslims, five Kurds, one Assyrian Christian and one Turkmen. They represent Iraq's seven main political parties and include three women and prominent tribal leaders.
With a Shiite majority, the council marks the first time Sunni Muslims are not dominant in Iraq's political affairs, as they were when Saddam Hussein's Baath Party held power. Shiites constitute about 60 percent of the country's 24 million people. (List of members)
It was originally to have been an advisory council but was changed to governing council after Bremer agreed to Iraqi demands for substantive powers.
Among the parties are the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmed Chalabi, and the Iraqi National Coalition, headed by Adnan Pachachi, former foreign minister before the Baath Party came to power.
Another is the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, headed by Ayatollah Muhammed Baqr Al Hakim and represented on the council by Hakim's brother and deputy, Abdelaziz Al Hakim.
Hakim, who recently returned from exile in Iran, and Iraq's most popular Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, are regarded by many Iraqi politicians as relatively moderate voices in their community. As such, their backing of the council is necessary to ensure the support of the country's Shiite majority.
• Coalition authorities Sunday announced the launch of a U.S. military operation to "neutralize paramilitary Baath Party loyalists and other subversive elements" in the central Iraqi towns of Bayji, Samarra and Huwaiyh. Members of the 4th Infantry Division launched Operation Ivy Serpent on Saturday.
• One U.S. soldier was killed and two others wounded early Sunday in Iraq when a tractor-trailer slammed into their parked vehicle, U.S. Central Command said. The incident took place at a checkpoint outside of a base camp near the city of Ad Diwaniyah at about 6:30 a.m., Central Command said.
• With the latest death, 80 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since Bush announced an end to major combat operations May 1. Of those, 32 have been killed by hostile fire and 48 were victims of non-hostile fire or accidents.
• President Bush said Saturday he remains confident in George Tenet following the CIA director's statement taking responsibility for a now-discredited line in the president's State of the Union address alleging that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. "I've got confidence in George Tenet; I've got confidence in the men and women who work at the CIA," Bush said. In a statement released Friday evening, Tenet said that the CIA had seen and approved the speech before it was delivered. (Full story)
• British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended the United Kingdom's decision to include in its first Iraqi dossier claims that Saddam tried to get uranium in Africa. Straw acknowledged Saturday that the CIA expressed reservations about the use of the claim in the British government's September dossier on Iraqi weapons, but he insisted it was based on what British officials regarded as "reliable intelligence" that had not been shared with the United States. (Full story)
CNN correspondents Rym Brahimi and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.