Baghdad The assassins who tried to gun down Muhyi al-Khateeb early this month managed only to hit his chauffeur, who lost an eye and four fingers. They struck near the spot where last month they shot Akila al-Hashimi, one of three women council members.
Khateeb still chokes up when he recalls her death.
No one wants the American venture in Iraq to produce a new, decent government more than Khateeb, a former Iraqi diplomat and longtime anti-Saddam activist, whose brother was tortured in the dictator's jails. Khateeb spent two decades in America but returned from Virginia to become secretary-general of Iraq's interim Governing Council. He won't give up, even though a rocket hit his floor at the Rasheed Hotel, to which he had moved for safety because it was supposedly protected by U.S. troops.
But he is worried. He sees Saddam remnants along with Arab and Islamist terrorists carrying out a clever strategy that could destroy Iraqis' hopes.
That strategy aims to assassinate new Iraqi leaders and target Iraqis who cooperate with Americans, along with international aid groups, the United Nations, and would-be foreign investors.
"There will be no rebuilding of Iraq without security," says Khateeb. And this devilish strategy has even grimmer aims. One is to provoke civil war between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis by killing religious leaders on both sides. Another is to make U.S. troops so fearful that they launch mistaken attacks on Shiites, which in turn would provoke the Shiite religious establishment into revoking its ban on attacking Americans. That would make the U.S. presence in Iraq virtually untenable.
What worries Khateeb most is that he doesn't think the Americans have an adequate counterstrategy.
What does he suggest? "Give Iraqis more authority to handle the job themselves."
The Americans contend they are doing this. Many Iraqis believe the U.S. viceroy in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, was wrong to summarily disband the entire Iraqi army in June; they think he could have recalled and vetted whole army units. Bremer has now accelerated the schedule to train an Iraqi army from two years to one, along with training for tens of thousands of police.
But Khateeb and others on the governing council say this will take too long.
"The army won't be effective for at least a year," says council member Adel Abdul Madi, "and the police are too weak to face terrorists."
Several council members fear that in coming weeks there could be major car bomb attacks on Iraqi government buildings or American troops unless more progress is made in cracking the terrorist networks and finding Saddam.
In the long run, the $20 billion in reconstruction aid requested by President Bush may boost the Iraqi economy and services enough to undercut support for Saddam's guerrillas. But in the shorter run, the threat of car bombs and assassinations undercuts the chances for such progress.
"The Americans have no solutions," says one council member, who wishes not to be named. "What the Americans need is to depend on Iraqi forces."
Several council members have argued that the United States should allow various Iraqi political movements to combine their militias into a national strike force that would track and destroy the terrorists.
When I asked Bremer about this idea, he shot it down, saying: "We do not believe that it is a good idea to have militias play a role. That is inconsistent with a national police force or a professional army."
But the police force and the army don't yet exist. Clearly, using Iraqi militias -- some of which are linked to Islamist groups -- is indeed risky, but so is waiting around for Saddam's minions to blow up the whole Governing Council.
Nor can the Bush team depend on a misbegotten plan to bring in 10,000 Turkish troops to calm Sunni areas.
A new strategy is needed that consults more with Iraqis and takes a tougher stance toward troublemakers.
Council members are scornful of U.S. suggestions that they forgo the death penalty for criminals convicted of war crimes; they think a tougher message needs to be sent to Saddam's bitter-enders. Zuhair Hummadi, an Iraqi-American activist visiting Baghdad, asked: "Why should they have the death penalty in Texas but not here?"
Death penalty or no, it's clear that tougher tactics are needed. An American strategy that involves little consultation with Iraqis isn't working. It's time to talk seriously with the people who know the Saddamist mindset best.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.