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Iraqi officials reject U.N. plan to delay conference

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Organizers of a conference to choose an interim Iraqi national assembly—the first step toward elections that are to be held by January—announced Tuesday that they had rejected a U.N. proposal to delay the start of the meeting until after this month.

The delay would have run afoul of laws enacted by the former U.S.-led occupation authority and hurt the credibility of the process among leery Iraqis, said Fuad Masoum, the head of the conference's organizing committee.

The conference will begin Saturday, he said, and will last one or two days.

U.N. officials helping to organize the elections had argued that there hadn't been enough time to address properly the selection of delegates to the conference and their safety.

"We'd like for the United Nations to understand these circumstances and to continue helping the Iraqi people to get through this period and to reach a constitutional period," Masoum said, arguing that "any delay will have a negative effect on this committee, and we don't want to raise any problems in this critical period."

Earlier this month, some organizers had said the conference could begin as early as Wednesday.

The conference is the next step in the U.N.-sanctioned plan to establish a democratic Iraq. Under the plan, the conference is to be made up of 1,000 delegates from Iraq's several ethnic and geographic groups. The delegates in turn are to pick 81 people from their ranks to be members of the interim national assembly. The rest of the 100-person membership will be made up of former members of the disbanded Iraqi Governing Council not serving in the current interim government.

Masoum said the final list of conference delegates hasn't been drawn up, but it will be announced in a day or two.

The national assembly primarily will be an advisory body, but it will be able to veto executive orders from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi if it can muster a two-thirds majority. It also will have approval authority of the nation's 2005 budget.

"I don't expect this assembly to have a magic wand to solve all problems," said Baghdad University political scientist Amer Hassan Fayadh. "However, democracy is a matter of process. This process needs steps, and this conference is one of the steps."

Working with government ministers, the assembly also will help prepare for parliamentary elections by Jan. 31. The government is preparing to undertake a national census in the fall.

The absence of direct elections so far has led some powerful political and religious leaders to reject participation in the conference. Notable among them is radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, although Masoum said Tuesday that an invitation still stands for al Sadr or his representatives to attend.

"Whoever attends, we welcome them," Masoum said. "If they have other ideas, we respect their ideas."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.