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Political conference to chart Iraq's future still set for Sunday

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A political conference billed as a key step in Iraq's transition to democratic self-rule is to start Sunday after a week of political turmoil and violent unrest around the country.

Organizers and participants have said the three-day event, delayed for two weeks at the urging of U.N. advisers because of boycott threats, will go on despite safety concerns and questions about its effectiveness.

"The conference will be held on time," said Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's spokesman, Taha Hussein.

As fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and insurgents subsided Friday in the southern city of Najaf amid truce talks, it appeared the conference might benefit from the lull in hostilities, which threatened to spark a wider uprising.

Conference organizers, aided by U.N. advisers, pressed on with intense negotiations with groups that so far have rejected participating in the conference. One apparent result has been the decision to increase the number of conference delegates from 1,000 to about 1,200.

The gathering, mandated by the U.S.-backed transition plan, is intended to include people from across Iraq's political, religious, ethnic, tribal, social and professional spectrums.

The agenda includes charting Iraq's political 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. It will be able to veto executive orders from the prime minister, if it can muster a two-thirds majority, and it will have authority to approve the 2005 budget.

Organizers have heralded the conference with posters and banners around Baghdad. But it remains to be seen whether the fledgling Iraqi government's first run at political pluralism can yield results in which a wary and frustrated public will have faith.

"Most of the people are looking at this conference as a play—an American play to show others that we are acting in a democratic way," said professor Nabeal Younis, of Baghdad University's Center of International Studies.

From the outset, some prominent groups, including one led by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, denounced the conference as not fully representing Iraqis. He and the conservative Muslim Scholars Association have said they will boycott it.

"It will be a failure from the beginning," said Quais Jaber, 41, an engineer who joined about 5,000 al Sadr loyalists at a demonstration Friday in downtown Baghdad.

Fraud, intimidation and other wrongdoings in regional caucuses used to pick delegates prompted the moderate-to-conservative Iraqi Islamic Party, which has a mostly Sunni Muslim following, to announce last month that it was dropping out of the conference.

Yet it's possible that conference organizers could succeed in changing party leaders' minds, said Iyad Samaree, the party's deputy chairman, this week. Talks centered on how to ensure delegates will represent the party and other groups.

"It is not clear yet how those problems will be solved, but there are some proposals," Samaree said. "Unless this is accomplished, then the conference will be useless."


(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times.)


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