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Iraqi political conference postponed as key groups threaten boycott

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A key national political conference aimed at planning Iraq's transition to democratic self-rule was postponed by two weeks on Thursday as important Iraqi political groups threatened to boycott the meeting, originally set to start on Saturday.

Announcement of the postponement marked a swift reversal just two days after organizers had rejected a U.N. proposal to delay the conference, which is mandated in the U.S.-backed transition plan. At the time organizers said that any delay would be illegal and undermine the credibility of the political process.

Lead organizer Fuad Masoum portrayed the change Thursday as positive, saying that the "one time only" postponement would give organizers more time to prepare for the event and persuade more groups to participate.

"We need more negotiations and more dialogue," he said. "We can have a solution in two weeks."

It remains to be seen if organizers, with help from the United Nations, can keep on track what many political observers view as a train in danger of derailing. A failure to gain widespread participation would deeply undermine the legitimacy of the political transition that the Bush administration has set in motion.

The conference agenda includes charting Iraq's future, preparing for parliamentary elections by Jan. 31 and constituting a 100-member interim national assembly, to be picked from the ranks of conference delegates.

The assembly will be mostly an advisory body, but it will be able to veto executive orders from the prime minister, if it can muster a two-thirds majority. It also will have the authority to approve the 2005 budget.

The conference, intended to be a gathering of 1,000 delegates from across Iraq's political, religious, ethnic, social and professional spectrums, has been plagued by political, technical and security problems.

Influential political and religious groups, including one led by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Muslim Scholars Association, have refused to participate, condemning the conference as not fully representing Iraqis.

Other groups have complained about widespread voting irregularities, such as fraud, intimidation and cronyism, in regional caucuses used to pick many conference delegates. Such concerns led a prominent Sunni Muslim political party to withdraw from the conference on Wednesday.

Continued attacks on Iraqi security forces and assassination attempts on government officials also have threatened the conference. Organizers have been tight-lipped about the event's location and program and even how many days it will last.

"It doesn't seem to a lot of people to be a real conference," said Nabeal Younis, of Baghdad University's Center of International Studies.

Masoum denied Thursday that security concerns were a factor in the postponement. "We have full confidence in our security agencies."

But he did acknowledge, as he has before, problems in the way in which conference delegates were selected. In some provinces, organizers went as far as to nullify caucus results and negotiate agreements on delegates, he said earlier this week.

He also acknowledged that more needed to be done to spread the word around the nation about how the conference will work and what it will do. That's another reason for the postponement, he said.

"This (delay) is not a negative aspect," he said. "This is a concession that this conference should represent all of Iraq."

Laws enacted by the former U.S.-led occupation authority require the conference to occur by Saturday. Masoum said Thursday that the postponement was legal but didn't explain why.

U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar, standing with Masoum on Thursday, said the conference marked a "historic moment" for the nation that "requires the participation of all Iraqis" to be as diverse as intended.

He and Masoum denied that the United Nations leaned on conference organizers to postpone the event.

"We are seriously cooperating with each other," Benomar said. "There were not any pressures."

A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, led by one-time U.S. ally Ahmad Chalabi, took a different view. Haider al Musawi said any flaws in the conference aren't serious enough to delay it.

"The United Nations tries to put obstacles before the Iraqis," he said in an interview on al Arabiya television. "Surely, there is no ideal democratic process. There are defects, even in the most democratic states."

Yet the moderate-to-conservative Iraqi Islamic Party, which has a large, mostly Sunni Muslim following, said flaws were so widespread that it had no choice but to withdraw from the conference. Party leader Muhsen Abdul Hamid said Thursday that the action wasn't sour grapes over losing delegate caucuses.

"We noticed a general issue," he said. "We tried to send this message to the government and to the influential people and to the people in general that such violations are dangerous in the new Iraq."


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Saleem Khalaf contributed to this report.)


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