In the midst of threats of violence and terrorism by elements committed to destabilizing Iraq, approximately 1,300 delegates, representing a wide range of Iraq's political, religious, tribal, and ethnic groups, attended the opening of the National Congress on August 15 to lay the foundations for a democratic country. The convening of the Congress was the second step toward restoring Iraqi sovereignty, after the first step of establishing the interim government on June 28.
The Congress, held under the auspices of the United Nations special representative Ashraf J. Qadhi (a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.), was initially scheduled to conclude its work in three days. However, because of the crisis in Najaf involving Muqtada Al-Sadr, which cast a pall over the conference, the meeting was extended for a fourth day. The meeting concluded with the selection of 81 individuals to join the 19 former members of the defunct Iraq Governing Council (IGC) to form a body of 100 delegates who will act as an interim National Assembly (parliament) until elections are held in early 2005. The National Assembly is intended to serve as an advisory rather than legislative body and is scheduled to meet for the first time on September 1.
In his opening statement, the chairman of the Congress Preparatory Committee, Fuad Ma'sum, a Kurd, said, "We are laying the foundation of the first road to democracy in our country and closing the door on the 35 years of the [ Saddam Hussein ] regime."  Al-Ma'sum was followed by Iraq's interim president Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer, who referred "to the historic moment in the life of Iraq and the Iraqis." He said, "The Congress represents the first manifestation of political life in Iraq after the fall of the backward Ba'thist regime, which forbade mass meetings and political conferences except those intended to praise and glorify the despot. The ability to meet is one of the advantages of freedom that our people can now enjoy." 
The interim prime minister, Dr. Iyad Allawi, outlined the duties and responsibilities of the National Assembly. He said the assembly will follow up on the reconstruction and economic growth of the country, will confirm the appointment of members of the office of the president (and his two vice presidents) and members of the cabinet (in case of vacancy or death), will have the right to repeal those cabinet decisions that have the force of law, and will approve the budget for the year 2005. He stressed the need for Iraq, to move ahead free of religious, ethnic, or racial discrimination. 
Topics on the Agenda
There were four key items on the agenda of the congress,  each of which was presented by a rapporteur. The topics discussed were (a) political issues; (b) security; (c) reconstruction and development; and (d) human rights and justice. However, two other sub-topics dominated the congress and raised its temperature: the rebellion in Najaf and the election, or selection, of the 100 members of the interim national assembly.
The Political Topic
The rapporteur, Dr. As'ad Al-Barzanji, presented proposals and recommendations that stressed the need to apply a political solution to nation-building, sovereignty, and independence.
The political debate was largely dominated, however, by the selection of the members of the National Assembly. Under the rules brokered by the United Nations, the National Assembly will be made up of 100 members, including 19 former members of the defunct Iraq Governing Council (IGC), who were guaranteed seats in the National Assembly as "a reward" for being passed over for appointment to the interim government. The preparatory committee for the Congress prepared a list of candidates representing the key elements of those participating. This list, which has come to be known as the National Unity List, was very much dominated by representatives of the key parties in government, including Allawi's own Al-Wifaq Al-Watani (the National Accord ), the Da'wa Party, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in addition to the two Kurdish parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
During the debate about the government-sponsored list, two additional lists were presented: the List for Democratic Encounter, and a list claiming to represent civil society, but it was of unknown origin and was quickly removed. Toward the end and after some modifications, the list for national unity was approved by acclamation.  The sponsors of the List for Democratic Encounter withdrew from the Congress and blasted its organizers as being engaged "in a clear assassination of the legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi people." The spokesman for the list, Aziz Al-Yasseri, added that what was accomplished is "a step backward." 
The published list includes some famous tribal leaders of the Al-Yawer and Al-Sha'lan tribes (represented in the government by the president and the minister of defense, respectively), Hussein Al-Sadr (referred to as the "dean" of the Al-Sadr family and a cousin of Muqtada al-Sadr), and the children of two famous parents ( Sa'ad Saleh Jaber, the son of a former Shi'ite prime minister, and Khiyal Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri, the daughter of one of Iraq's greatest poets). The list also include Sherif Ali bin Al-Hussein, a pretender to the Iraqi throne, as well as the secretary-general of the communist party Hamid Majid Mousa.  Among the well-known figures from the former IGC who will serve on the assembly are the two Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Mas'oud Al-Barzani, as well as Dr. Ahmad Chalabi, Dr. Adnan Al-Pachachi (a former foreign minister and the son of a former prime minister), and Naseer al-Chaderchi, the son of Kamel Al-Chaderchi, one of the most distinguished liberal newspaper publishers in Iraq until the rise of Ba'thism. It is not surprising that an editorial in one of the Iraqi dailies referred to this body as "the democracy of the effendis" (democracy of the dignitaries).  Notable for their absence were representatives of the Muqtada al-Sadr's movement and the Council of Muslim Clerics (Sunni clerics). They were both invited to attend the Congress but declined. 
The assembly will be comprised of 40 Shi'ites, 25 Sunnis, 25 Kurds, 6 Turkemen, 2 Christians and 2 others representing small ethnic minorities. Perhaps most significantly, there will 25 women in the new assembly - an unprecedented achievement for any Arab parliament, elected or appointed.  It is not surprising that Suhaila Al-Asadi, one of the female representatives, characterized the Congress as "democracy's national newborn."  As one Iraqi political commentator, Dr. Liqaa Makki, has suggested, unlike the distribution of the membership of the IGC, this list reflects more national than ethnic distribution. 
The Drawback of Selection by Acclamation
The selection of the members for the national assembly by acclamation, even if they were fully representative of the forces present at the Congress, was widely criticized because it drains democracy of its essence of competitiveness and compromise. However, an editorial in the Iraqi daily Baghdad, which speaks for the Al-Wifaq Al-Watani party of the prime minister, asserted that "the primary winner in this new operation is the Iraqi people because this will be a very useful experiment in the preparation for the elections scheduled for the beginning of next year." 
The following exchange between two delegates and the Speaker of the Congress during the debate on the fourth topic, human rights, is illuminating:
A Delegate: "Sir, I would like to say something, with your permission. Since the beginning of this conference we have acted according to the rules customary in all parliaments in the world. The vote is the deciding factor. From the start, we have asked the honorable Speaker to bring to a vote the issue of changing the election mechanism. Our voice was not heard, and, and the Speaker has not said whether he is for or against. Now if some delegates - even only one – ask to have a vote we must vote for or against, and only then express our positions. No one has the right to express their opinion this way: 'Do you agree or not?' I'm a professor of law, and I know how constitutional law and parliaments work. A member requests a vote, and we must vote so it will be clear whether we are in agreement on this. There are the rules, sir. I apologize for cutting in and interrupting your speech, but enough is enough."
Speaker: " Dear sir, if you please…"
Delegate: "Two days ago we raised proposals and the Speaker is being evasive, and there is no transparency in parliament. Why hasn't the election system been changed yet? In the end it will be too late, it will be 5 pm and the lists will be presented and we will be forced to vote. We will be forced to vote on a prepared list… I ask you to hold vote on this issue. Any issue raised by an MP must be voted on."
Speaker: " Gentlemen, please be patient with me. We are discussing human rights… Don't you know the rule of hospitality? Allah said: 'Lord, burden us not with what we do not have the strength to bear.' Why do you burden me with something I cannot bear? We are now discussing the issue of human rights and none other." 
The Security Topic
The rapporteur, Dr. Tawfiq Al-Yaseri, called in his report for rebuilding the security apparatus, including providing training and obtaining adequate equipment, including electronic, for use both inside the country and on its borders to give the security agencies, the police, and the army the capacity to protect the political process and the country's stability, reconstruction, and progress.
The security topic was certainly on the mind of the delegates as the gravity of the situation was underscored by the atmosphere of stringent security precautions and as the debate of the issues was occasionally punctuated by the explosions of mortar shells outside the conference hall. It is to the credit of the participants in the Congress that they have not been deterred by the threats of terrorism outside the building in which they were convening, nor have they considered postponing the meeting.
Initiative to Defuse Al-Sadr's Rebellion
While these four topics were important building stones for the future of democracy in Iraq, the raging rebellion in Najaf instigated by Al-Sadr's Iranian-financed Mahdi Army dominated the spirit, if not the content, of the debate. Al-Sadr himself commanded no sympathy among the vast majority of the members of the Congress, and his hardcore supporters could not have been greater than the 100 delegates who threatened to leave the conference in protest of the attack on Al-Sadr's militia. There was no doubt about a genuine concern that any damage to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf could have grave and incalculable consequences. At the center of the debate stood the ultimatum delivered by the interim prime minister and echoed by the minister of defense that called on al-Sadr to lay down his arms in Najaf as well as in the provinces, make a public statement renouncing violence, and allow his followers to leave the shrine after presenting their identity cards to the Iraqi police. This last condition appears to have been driven by the government's intentions to weed out what was alleged to be Iranians fighting side by side with Al-Sadr's Iraqi militia.  One of the Congress's important initiatives was to select a 20-member delegation to negotiate with Al-Sadr an end to his rebellion. Al-Sadr, despite earlier promises to the contrary, refused to meet the delegation which, incidentally, was led by his cousin, Hussein Al-Sadr. Muqtada Al-Sadr has also reneged on his repeated promises to deliver the keys of the Imam Ali Shrine to the representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Al-Sadr's rebellion has caused a lot of hardship to the people of Najaf, and it is not surprising that they are quoted in international media on August 24 that they want the Iraqi government to put an end to this rebellion once and for all. 
Development and Reconstruction
As rapporteur on development and reconstruction, Dr. Salama Sumaisam focused on the backlog of economic problems left behind by the previous regime, and the measures that need to be taken to address them. These problems included unemployment, destruction of the national economy, and the waste of strategic national resources. Recommendations were submitted to restart the engine of economic growth, including policies that would attract direct foreign investments in the country.
Human Rights and Justice
The rapporteur, Dr. Ali Al-Adhadh, recommended the establishment of a special commission for human rights and justice. The subject was hotly debated in the Congress.
One delegate complained that the human rights document did not mention the genocidal acts against the Kurdish people, beginning with Al-Anfal, the forced deportation of Kurds to southern Iraq to which 180,000 Kurds fell victim, and ending with the chemical bombing of Halabja. The speaker called on Germany, whose companies supplied the chemical components, to compensate the relatives and their victims. 
A second delegate referred to victims of fascism who were subjected to despicable crimes in northern, central, and southern Iraq. The delegate wondered why Iraq is required to continue to pay compensations to Kuwait, whose sacrifice, in comparison, was tantamount to "a walk in the park." The delegate demanded that a committee be formed to compensate the Iraqi people.
The liberal democratic weekly Al-Ahali wrote under the title: "We Do Not Need a Parliament That Votes Unanimously:"
"The parliaments of our country and those of most Arab countries, including Saddam's cardboard parliament, have accustomed us to a totalitarian system of government in which the parliament unanimously approves resolutions to meet the whims of the leader of the regime.
"The new parliament must be armed with courage and wisdom… It must defend the rights of citizens and address their sufferings and concerns, rather than applaud sonorously and in the language of obsolete slogans. It is incumbent on the parliament to discuss public services such as health, electricity, education, living conditions, the situation of the retirees, women's rights, children's right and the problem of youth. It has to discuss the rights of the victims of the extinct regime and the victims of mass graves… It has to be the defending voice of all segments of the society, regardless of their racial, religious and ethnic affiliation." 
By contrast, there were also critical comments on the conduct of the Congress. Apart from the comment mentioned earlier, about "the Congress of Dignitaries," other dailies took issue mainly with the selection process. The independent daily Al-Furat wrote that the national congress "emerged from the womb lacking clarity about what Iraq is going through now."  The weekly Al-Madar complained that the Congress continued to be dominated by "the traditional forces that operated from England." It added that most members of the Congress were supporters of the traditional parties who did what they were ordered to do. 
Whether the list is representative or whether the process was democratic are topics that can be argued vigorously, depending on who is in and who is out. But the fact that so many newspapers and their commentators took complete and full liberty to criticize either the list or the process, or both, is definitely a reflection of a new democratic environment that was totally absent but eighteen moths ago.
* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.
 Al-Sabah (Baghdad), August 16, 2004.
 Al-Sabah (Baghdad), August 15, 2004.
 Al-Zaman (Baghdad, London), August 16, 2004.
 Al-Nahdha (Baghdad), August 19, 2004.
 Al-Zaman (London, Baghdad), August 21, 2004.
 The list is published by Al-Nahdha (Baghdad), August 19, 2004.
 Al-Manara (Baghdad), August 22, 2004.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 15, 2004.
 Al-Mashriq (Baghdad), August 21, 2004.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London),, August 18, 2004.
 Interview on Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), August 18, 2004.
 Baghdad (Iraq), August 19, 2004.
 Tens of Iranians fighting within the Mahdi Army were arrested. Al-Mashriq (Baghdad), August 22, 2004.
 For a detailed analysis of Al-Sadr, his movement, and his policies see Nimrod Raphaeli, "Muqtada Al-Sadr: What Does he Represent?" Middle East Quarterly (forthcoming).
 Al-Ahali (Baghdad), August 18, 2004.
 Al-Furat (Baghdad), August 17, 2004.
 Al-Madar (Baghdad), August 22, 2004.