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Discord erupts on eve of conference to form Iraqi government

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—Just hours before Iraqis were scheduled to meet Tuesday for the first time to start charting their path to democracy, one faction said it would boycott the session and two others broke into infighting.

A major Iraqi Shiite Muslim group said Monday that it would not attend Tuesday's conference in Nasiriyah, called under U.S. tutelage. The group protested even temporary U.S. involvement.

"We will not accept if they even stay one day in Iraq," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, the No. 2 leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

At the same time, the leader of the country's largest Kurdish group accused the leader of another Kurdish group of making a grab for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in violation of a U.S.-brokered accord.

Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan took advantage of the collapse of Kirkuk's defenses Thursday to pour into the city. Unchecked by U.S. forces, the broad Kurdish advance triggered looting and chaos, he said.

"What happened was definitely a violation of what we had agreed upon," Barzani said.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan did not immediately respond. The two groups fought for years, and their feud escalated into civil war in 1996. But they have worked together in recent months, coordinated by the United States, to challenge Saddam Hussein.

Another fight among Shiite Muslims, ended Monday without violence.

Armed Iraqis threatening to kill a Shiite spiritual leader and two other clerics in Najaf fled in the pre-dawn hours after busloads of his tribal followers rumbled into the central Iraqi city to rescue the holy men, sources close to the besieged clerics said.

The senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, remained in hiding, as he has been for the last nine days, said his son-in-law Javad Shahrestani, reached in Iran's holy city of Qom.

The 22-year-old rival cleric accused of orchestrating the attack, Moqtada Sadr, was missing Monday, and one Iranian newspaper reported that he had been killed. An ally in Iran, however, said the young cleric was alive.

Sadr heads a radical group called Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani and is the son of a grand ayatollah who was assassinated in 1999 by Saddam's regime.

U.S. officials said bad weather forecast for Tuesday could delay the Nasiriyah meeting. But weather permitting, they planned to proceed.

"This is the first time in 35 years that Iraqis have had the opportunity to participate in the formation of a government," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is the first tile in an Iraqi mosaic of democracy."

However, it was unclear whether Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi would attend, U.S. officials said. Chalabi has been in Iraq for more than a week at the head of a contingent of Free Iraqi troops.

On Sunday, Zab Sephna, a Chalabi adviser in Nasiriyah, said Chalabi would not attend.

Chalabi is the Pentagon civilians' favorite to head an interim Iraqi authority. But State Department and CIA officials have opposed him, and he has said he is not seeking to lead the interim government.

The meeting at the Tillil air base was expected to draw about 60 people, including about 40 Iraqi residents and 20 expatriates.

"This would be a discussion of the development of a process," the official said. "The Iraq authority is mostly a concept at this point."

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have been hammering home in recent days that the United States will not install a handpicked government, but rather it will support an interim Iraqi Authority chosen by Iraqis.

U.S. officials also noted that the United States is sponsoring the meeting "while shooting is still going on. That shows how serious the coalition is about restoring Iraqi sovereignty to the Iraqi people," said one official, speaking on condition that he not be identified.

Jay Garner, a former U.S. Army general who heads the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, will likely make an opening address to the Pentagon-sponsored session.

Meanwhile, the office, which will run the country until the Iraqi authority is formed, is quickly expanding into Iraq from its base in Kuwait.

An advance team of a dozen people in Umm Qasr has grown to about 35, and the office is starting to branch into the southern Iraqi cities of Nasiriyah and Basra.

A team headed by retired Gen. Bruce Moore arrived in northern Iraq on Sunday. Two health specialists have gone to Baghdad to start assessing damage to hospitals and report on public health concerns. Looters have stripped most of Baghdad's hospitals of equipment and supplies.

"We always knew there would be a certain amount of chaos" after Saddam's regime was removed, a U.S. official said. "This wasn't unexpected. Now we need to get the right type of medical assistance where it needs to go as quickly as possible."

Zalmay Khalilzad, special presidential envoy for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Larry DiRita, a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are headlining the U.S. delegation to the meeting, along with Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait.

The British will be represented by Edward Chatman of the foreign ministry. Coalition members Australia, Spain and Poland will also send envoys.

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(Wilkinson reported from Kuwait; Nelson from Tehran, Iran; Thomma from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Peter Smolowitz contributed from Doha, Qatar.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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Iraq

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