Iraqis scramble to fill power vacuums

Monday, May 5, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The man who considers himself Iraq's finance minister holds forth from an unlighted office on Massbah Street, amid workers with no work to do, proving again that nature abhors a vacuum -- especially human nature, and especially a vacuum with power and money attached.

It's a scene repeated in offices across Baghdad, and from north to south nationwide, as Americans and Iraqis struggle with few telephones, computers or even reliable lights to fill the top slots vacated when the old regime fled in the face of the U.S.-British invasion. They often find others have gotten there first.

At the Finance Ministry, barely a week after Saddam Hussein's statues began to fall, a deputy named Karim Minshid Khinyab appeared and claimed ministry-wide authority, citing an appointment by the "governor of Baghdad." The "governor" has since been arrested; Khinyab's time at the top may be running down, too.

The postwar vacuums have left gaping holes in everyday life. In Finance, for example, it's a money gap, for civil servants' salaries, agency budgets, retirees' pensions. It is a gap into which people like George Mayya have fallen.

"Who will pay me?" the Baghdad building supplier wondered. "I have claims on government offices for materials I supplied them. Who will pay me?"

The vacuums exist everywhere: in an Iraqi judicial system without judges; in hospitals without government medical supplies; in a Communications Ministry leaderless in the face of a wrecked phone system; even at "government" hotels without a Tourism Board to collect its revenue.

The U.S. postwar administrator, Jay Garner, predicted Iraqi government ministries would be operating effectively by early May, as his reconstruction office cobbled together a stopgap administration to lead to an "Interim Authority" that would give way eventually to an elected government.

But that timetable now looks optimistic. And others are filling the gaps, particularly at local levels.

In cities across the south, Shiite Muslim leaders are forming committees, paying civil servants' salaries, guarding government buildings with their own militias. In Baqubah, north of Baghdad, Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders, clan chiefs and political opposition groups govern together.

On Saturday, finance specialists from Garner's office met with ministry bureaucrats to discuss the pressing issues: paying civil servants and pensioners, and getting the banks working. On Sunday, Garner's office was asked whether it recognizes Khinyab as acting ministry chief.

"No one has been named head of the Finance Ministry," Capt. Jeff Jacoff told The Associated Press.

Later, he called back to add a note of emphasis. Khinyab, he said, will "certainly not" be the one to fill this vacuum.

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