Some Iraqis see them as America's puppets. But there was a telling moment at the first public appearance by the members of Iraq's US-appointed "governing council" on Sunday. When Ahmed Chalabi, head of the CIA-funded Iraqi National Congress, took it on himself to "express the gratitude of the Iraqi people" to George Bush and Tony Blair for "liberating Iraq", none of the other 24 members at their joint press conference clapped.
It was not that they were an unappreciative lot. They applauded a colleague who appealed to al-Jazeera and other Arab television stations not to be negative about events in Iraq. They had clapped when another said there was no chance of Saddam Hussein returning to power. But public thanks for Bush and Blair? No thanks.
Unlike Chalabi, a true puppet of America, the other council members realize they have a credibility problem. Many Iraqis are suspicious of US intentions, particularly when it comes to their oil. Others are merely angry that promises to bring security and normality are still so far from being achieved.
In either case potential Iraqi leaders have to be careful how far they identify themselves with the occupying authorities. It is the classic colonial dilemma for local leaders in a country run by foreigners. Today's Iraqis have to weigh up the same issue of collaboration that has faced many before them, in Africa, Asia and Latin America - and indeed faced an earlier generation of Iraqis when the British invaded after the Ottoman empire collapsed.
Will they become the scapegoats for American and British failings? Will the coalition now shift the blame for delays in getting electricity going by telling Iraqis to complain to their own ministers, whom the council will appoint? Is the council a device for starting the process of writing a constitution and holding elections, or just a fig-leaf for coalition inadequacy and a rubber stamp?
The US administrator, Paul Bremer, has pre-empted several key economic decisions, such as announcing the budget and awarding contracts to Bush administration cronies. Will the council be able to stop any more of this, or block his plans for privatization?
The biggest question for those invited to join the council was whether to go in or stay out. Would they gain more by a boycott, leaving the coalition to run Iraq on its own with the possibility of a gradual escalation in resistance and an eventual decision by the coalition to use more violence or withdraw? Or would it be better to join the council and use their presence as the thin end of a wedge to enlarge its powers - a point which Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of the powerful Shiite resistance to Saddam Hussein, made on Sunday.
His group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI), took longest in deciding whether to come on board. He and other doubters were persuaded by the vigorous diplomacy of the UN special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
It was a measure of the UN's high standing in Iraq that de Mello was the only foreigner invited to address Sunday's meeting. The Brazilian-born envoy played a key role, getting its name changed from "political council" to "governing council" and ensuring it would have some executive rather than merely advisory powers, including a qualified right to appoint ministers.
As a native of a third world country who has worked for the UN in Lebanon, Cambodia and East Timor, he found it easy to accept that Iraqis feel occupied. He uses phrases such as "managing the hurt pride of Iraqis" and "helping them to recover their sovereignty" which differ sharply from those of Bremer, a Washington neo-conservative.
At the same time, he was careful not to compete with the coalition, even though Iraqis clearly trust the UN more than the occupiers. The top two Shia leaders, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading cleric, and Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, head of SCIRI, both had long meetings with the UN envoy while declining to see Bremer or the British ambassador, John Sawers.
In a subtle way de Mello took the model by which Afghans chose a government through UN-chaired consultations and grafted it on to the Iraqi situation. The outcome in Iraq is better, since the council's ethnic and religious make-up, as well as the balance between internal and exiled opposition groups, is more reflective of Iraqi reality than the mujahedin-dominated government which rules Afghanistan.
But the test is yet to come. The council's collective status contains grave risks of puppetry and some members are manifestly more inclined to be puppets than others. The first showdown will come when the council confronts Paul Bremer and he tries to veto their will, or when any members decide to resign. Then we will see whether this traumatized country can master its destiny at last.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003