WESTMINSTER style democracy it wasn't, but somehow or other this week Iraq got itself a 100-member national assembly at the end of a four-day meeting in Baghdad. This national assembly will serve as a kind of parliament for the next six months, or until an election based on universal suffrage can be held to replace it, which might be longer. The intention had been that the members of this assembly would be individually elected by the gathering of about 1'300 representatives of the many sectors of Iraqi society, both religious and secular. Things didn't quite work out in that way, however. The main political parties drew up lists of their preferred candidates and eventually, after many protests and walk-outs by smaller parties and minority groups, these lists were consolidated into a single one which the meeting was invited to approve. No vote was taken but on the whole there seems to have been sufficient agreement on this final list for a substantial majority of those present to accept it. It is unlikely that any more ordered outcome could have been secured in Iraq's present circumstances.

The continuous backroom negotiations which brought about this result would not have been unfamiliar to those involved in American or British party conferences. The big boys got their way, that is to say, the two main Shiite parties, the Sunni Islamic Party, two Kurdish parties, the former exile group Iraqi National Congress, and the party of the prime minister Ayad Allawi, Iraqi National Accord. But at the same time provincial leaders and tribal figures and representatives of minorities were also among those chosen to form the new national assembly.

This assembly has heavy responsibilities. Broadly its task is to oversee the work of prime minister Allawi's interim government; specifically, it has to approve the national budget, and has the power to veto government proposals by a two-thirds majority. To perform this role adequately it will have to show more cohesion and discipline in its debates and decisions than were on display in the meeting that brought it into existence this week. The learning curve for this national assembly will be a steep one if it is to make any contribution to Iraq's political stability before national elections next year bring into being a democratically constituted assembly. Those with the best interests of Iraq at heart will wish it well. In theory, at least, and with all its faults, it is the first sign of true democratic institution-building in the country.


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