NASIRIYAH, Iraq—As the United States attempts to create a postwar government, key candidates to rebuild Iraq after Saddam Hussein already are denouncing each other's credentials and vowing not to work together.
Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial choice of civilian officials at the Pentagon to lead a transitional Iraqi administration, said Friday that British forces were making a mistake by appointing a powerful sheik with ties to Saddam's regime to oversee the southern city of Basra.
"Iraq is not a tribal society," Chalabi said. "The danger is that political acceptance will be lacking."
But key advisers to newly appointed Sheik Muzahim Mustafa al Kanan charged that exile opposition leaders such as Chalabi, a London banker, lack the credibility to lead Iraq, and accused them of living a life of luxury while ordinary Iraqis suffered.
"We call them the opposition of the five-star hotels," said Mansour al Tamimi, a lawyer and a top adviser to the sheik.
The tensions mirror those within the Bush administration, where State Department and CIA officials argue that Chalabi is untrustworthy and has little political following in Iraq, and they highlight the obstacles to creating a unified post-Saddam Iraq.
Another U.S. candidate to help bring law and order to Iraq, pro-Western Shiite Muslim cleric Abdul Majid al Khoei, was hacked to death by an angry mob Thursday in a mosque in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Another cleric, a widely despised Saddam loyalist named Haider al Kaidar, also was murdered by the mob, which included supporters of another cleric who had grudges against the clans of both the murdered men.
The tensions and violence have even made some Iraqis wonder if their country can survive without a strong man in charge.
"Only Saddam can keep Iraq as one country," said Jawad Khudeir, 35, a trader in Basra.
Representatives of Iraqi opposition groups overseas, tribal leaders and anti-Saddam figures in Iraq are scheduled to meet as early as Tuesday at an air base near Nasiriyah, or possibly in Baghdad if it's safe enough. Pentagon officials have pushed for an early meeting near Nasiriyah in an effort to promote Chalabi; State Department officials have pressed for broader representation and for holding the meeting in Baghdad, if possible.
"Despite what some people may want, this is not going to be a coronation of Ahmed Chalabi," a senior administration official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
At the meeting, the United States will put forward its vision for an interim government led by retired U.S. Army Gen. Jay Garner.
In the Basra suburb of Zubayr, several dozen tribal elders from around southern Iraq gathered Friday at the house of Sheik Muzahim. Men with machine guns stood guard on the roof.
The day before, an angry crowd had pelted the house with rocks to protest the sheik's appointment. There also were protests in other parts of Basra.
As a general and a senior Baath Party official, Muzahim carried out the orders of Saddam's regime. But British forces were convinced that he was no longer a Saddam supporter.
"The sheik and many other people in high places were forced to do some things," said al Tamimi. "If they didn't do it, the regime kidnapped their daughters and other family members and killed them."
The elders, a majority of them from the al Tamimi clan, were there to discuss how to run Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Their focus was on reviving Basra's police force and ironing out any political differences that could affect their ability to rule.
The men in the red-carpeted visiting room believed they had a legitimate right to oversee Basra. Iraq's clans have existed long before the nation. And many took part in the 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam, wearing it as a badge of honor.
On the wall hung a large picture of the sheik's brother who was killed by the regime for helping to organize the revolt.
The al Tamimis said the Iraqi exiles didn't have such credentials. They also said they didn't need the expertise and knowledge that Iraq's Western-educated exiles brought.
But Chalabi said those Iraqis who fled overseas were more effective in fighting the Saddam regime.
"If one wants to help the Iraqi people, one can't do it from inside a Saddam-controlled Iraq," Chalabi said. "The choice was to do it from some other place or come here and go to jail."
Outside the house, many Iraqis were suspicious of the al Tamimis.
"This family was in the Baath, and he was one of the highest Baathist officials," said Muhammed Aliki, 36, an engineer who was watching the armed guards on the roof. "The people don't need this family."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RIVALS