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Iraqis take key steps toward self-rule

Gunfire and explosions in Iraq killed two more U.S. servicemen and wounded four. But despite the worsening guerrilla warfare, the U.S.-led administration called two new city councils to order Monday _ one in the southern Shiite city of Najaf and the other in the chaotic capital.

The councils _ which join other municipal governments with limited powers emerging around Iraq _ are expected to act as a proving ground for national leaders, as the United States tries to lay the ground for an eventual transition to democracy.

Separately, in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, representatives of seven key Iraqi political parties took the first step toward the transition to a democratically elected government, approving a plan by U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer to create a temporary governing council.

The unanimous decision by the diverse groups that had stood in opposition to Saddam Hussein set in motion a process that would lead to the establishment of a government to succeed the long tyranny of the ousted dictator's Baath Party.

The seven factions' participation in the council, which is expected to give the body greater credibility with Iraqis, had been in doubt. Until recently, there had been a "serious possibility" that some groups would boycott the council, said Zaab Sethma of the exile Iraqi National Congress.

Sethma said the Iraqis were swayed by "concessions" offered by Bremer, among them calling the body a governing council rather than a political council to reflect the fact that more power would be put in the hands of Iraqis. The Iraqis, not Bremer as originally envisioned, will be able to nominate members of the council. The council would have the power to appoint interim ministers, not just advisers to U.S. or British officials heading ministries.

The United States will remain the legal occupying power in Iraq until its authority is turned over to a permanent elected government in one or two years. But Bremer set a target of mid July for convening the council as a way to begin giving Iraqis a chance to govern themselves.

Meanwhile, in two days of attacks in Baghdad, three U.S. soldiers have been killed, raising the total to 30 American combat deaths since major hostilities ended May 1.

In the latest slayings, a roadside bomb killed one soldier traveling in an Army convoy Monday, and a second American was shot to death in a Sunday night gunbattle in the troubled Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Azamiyah, the military said. Both soldiers belonged to the Army's 1st Armored Division, the Germany-based unit occupying Baghdad.

Also Sunday, a U.S. soldier from Florida was shot and killed drinking a soda in the shade at Baghdad University.

The 22-year-old became the second Florida National Guard soldier killed in Iraq, his family confirmed Monday. Spec. Jeffrey Wershow, 22, of Gainesville, was assigned to the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, speaking in a news conference call Monday from Kuwait City after meeting with Wershow's comrades in Baghdad, said the slaying was "an assassination" planned and carried out by Hussein's supporters.

Nelson said Wershow was on a security detail when someone tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around, he was shot.

The meeting in Baghdad of the city council brought together 37 officials for the first time. The advisory body _ which has no spending authority _ will advise the U.S.-led administration.

"It's probably the most important day since April 9, when the coalition came and liberated you from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," said Bremer. "Today marks the resumption of the democratic system in Baghdad, which hasn't been here in 30 years."

As security men prowled the chamber with machine guns, Bremer lectured the council on the responsibilities of looking after a multiethnic city the size of Houston. He lauded their bravery.

"You have courageously chosen to serve the public at a time when malicious people in Baghdad threaten the peace and security of this city," Bremer said.

The U.S. administration screened council members for ties to Hussein's Baath Party and nullified the election of "four or five" Baathists, said Army Lt. Col. Joe Rice, a council adviser.

Once the country's constitution is written and a census and voter registrations finished, nationwide elections will be held, "at which point the coalition's work will be done," Bremer said.

The council members were not chosen through popular elections. Individual neighborhood councils put up candidates for district councils, which in turn proposed candidates for city council. They were selected through a show of hands among neighborhood and district council members.

City councils have been emerging around Iraq, with councils in Mosul and Basra, among other cities. Fallujah and other cities have mayors. On Monday, a 22-member city council took its seats in the southern city of Najaf. Najaf, like much of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, has been largely free of violence against U.S. troops.