BAGHDAD, Iraq—American officials and Iraqis marked Saddam Hussein's 66th birthday Monday by convening in the capital to discuss how to forge a new government for Iraq.
Meeting behind barricades of American armor and patrolling U.S. soldiers in battle dress, about 250 delegates opened their first post-Saddam planning session in Baghdad with a reading from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, then a welcome from Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq.
There were no concrete decisions made at the meeting, and none was expected. But there also was little acrimony among the delegates who represented a variety of ethnic and religious groups: Shiite and Sunni Muslim clerics, wearing traditional robes; Kurds from the north; tribal chiefs in Arab headdresses; and Iraqis who fled the country years ago, who wore Western business suits.
Notably absent were the two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, an absence U.S. officials said was because of "logistical problems."
Also missing were the Iraqi Communist Party and the Islamic Dawa Party.
But officials from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iran-based group of Shiite Muslim exiles, did attend. The council had refused to attend a similar meeting held earlier this month near Nasariyah.
There also was no word from U.S. officials on when a government might be formed. Iraqis present acknowledged that such a government might not happen quickly.
"We know that everybody is asking for some kind of government," said Safar Maroof, the leader of the newly created Iraqi Democratic Party. "It will take time."
"We have a chance for your sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters to be safe, to be free and have the opportunity to live in peace and prosperity. Let us not waste this opportunity," Garner said in his welcome. "Today on the birthday of Saddam Hussein, let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq."
Subsequent speakers touched on a range of topics, from how much influence Islam would have on the new state to how to craft a constitution to what the United States could do to help.
Garner called for "a democratic government which represents all people, all religions, all tribes." Many delegates called for the creation of a "presidential council" during the interim period, rather than electing a temporary president.
In Dearborn, Mich., home to many Iraqi exiles, President Bush on Monday expressed hope for a democratic Iraq. "As freedom takes hold in Iraq, the Iraqi people will choose their own leaders and their own government," Bush told an enthusiastic crowd in the Detroit suburb. "America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture. Yet we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected."
Bush, too, declined to give a timetable for the establishment of a government. "People have been enslaved by Saddam Hussein for years," Bush said. "To think this is going to happen in weeks is unrealistic."
Monday's meeting in Baghdad was held at Saddam's convention center near a parade ground where Saddam often marked his birthday, pulling children out of school and forcing them to celebrate.
Security was exceptional as Iraqis and U.S. troops waited to see whether any remaining Baath Party loyalists or members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a particularly fierce strike force, would use the occasion for an attack in the capital.
Some troops wore gas masks on their hips and stashed other poison gas protection gear in their tanks and armored personnel carriers. Near a grand palace graced with two monumental cross swords, soldiers spent virtually the entire day inside their M1 Abrams tanks.
"We're just trying to be careful," said Ecuador-born Army Pfc. Fausto Trivino, 25, of Gainesville, Fla., an infantryman. "They told us there're some threats out there of suicide bombers, so we're trying not to get hurt."
But Trivino was not scared. "This is nothing. This is boring. I know the war is over. I'm feeling good," he said.
As though to mark the date, crowds were thinner around the city as Baghdadis seemed to sense the soldiers' caution. Until this year, the birthday of Saddam required joyous, staged public festivals for the leader of the 35-year, iron-fisted regime.
"We would pretend we were happy, but on the inside we were sad," said Abdul Razak al Naami, 45, a sergeant in the Iraqi army until the Americans marched in.
On Monday, he was wearing civilian clothes and a white Muslim skullcap and sought an American reporter to deliver a message to President Bush. "You tell Mr. Bush I think he must be a Muslim for what he did for us," said Naami, conjuring up his highest compliment.
If the American president were here, he continued, he would kiss him on both cheeks, then treat him to "dates and yogurt and water from the Tigris and the Euphrates. This is God's land. Everyone deserves it. Every Christian, every Jew and every Muslim needs to live in peace—and eat from God's gifts—not from Saddam Hussein's hands."
Not everyone was delighted with the Bush administration's efforts to forge a new government. Thousands of Shiites thronged the steps of the National Theater in the Karadeh district in protest. "Yes for the Hawza," read a huge banner, referring to the Shiite Muslim Center of Learning in the city of Najaf. Some of the sheiks from the center have been dispatched to Baghdad to organize here, and some of them have been vocal in their opposition to the U.S. presence. "Let the people choose the government," said another sign.
Inside, however, the meeting seemed almost festive at times. Many speakers talked at length about the country's potential, veering off the topic at hand. Some went well beyond the time limit to share their thoughts.
Former Iraqi exiles hugged and kissed. One asked another in disbelief "In Baghdad?" "Yes, in Baghdad," the other responded, smiling.
Ahmed al Hadery, who has lived in exile in Canada, explained the attendees' gregariousness by saying that it was the first time people had been allowed to freely express themselves in at least 30 years.
(Andrea Gerlin and Diego Ibarguen contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ