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Conference on Iraq's political future gets off to dramatic start

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A political conference that was billed as critical to Iraq's transition to democratic self-rule got under way Sunday with a call for candid debate about solving the violence-plagued nation's problems.

The delegates wasted little time heeding the request.

After barely an hour of lofty opening remarks, a group of delegates, standing at their seats and shouting, interrupted the program and threatened to walk out unless the fledgling Iraqi government imposed an immediate nationwide cease-fire.

The outburst, prompted by ongoing battles in Najaf and other cities between Shiite Muslim militants and U.S. and Iraqi forces, and a nearby mortar barrage about a half hour later, provided a dramatic start to a gathering that many Iraqis consider flawed at best and a charade at worst.

Iraqi government officials heralded the conference as a momentous step, while acknowledging its shortcomings.

"We admit that the conference is not the fruit of direct elections," interim president Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawer said. "If it gets us to a national consensus, it will help us to rise again as a unified nation without fear of the future."

The conference, delayed by two weeks, took place inside the heavily guarded downtown Baghdad compound known as the Green Zone. Security was tighter than usual, as Iraqi and U.S. forces imposed a downtown curfew, blocked nearby streets, and patrolled the skies in assault helicopters.

The more than 1,100 delegates assembled took the threat of insurgent attack stoically, casually stepping away from plate-glass windows as booms from the mortar barrage reverberated through the convention center.

They showed equal gusto for democratic debate and lunch, however, cramming against a counter to get trays of lamb and chicken kebab. As for the conference's political outcome, they had high hopes and realistic expectations.

Baghdad resident Zakia Hakki, the head of an Iraqi women's rights organization, offered this blunt assessment of the gathering as an alternative to the nationwide elections scheduled to occur by Jan. 31: "It is better than nothing."

The two- to three-day meeting is mandated by the U.S.-backed transition plan and sanctioned by the United Nations. Its main goals are to chart Iraq's political future and constitute a 100-member interim national assembly, to be picked from the ranks of conference delegates.

The gathering is intended to include delegates from across Iraq's political, religious, ethnic, tribal, social and professional spectrums. Some prominent groups, however, have boycotted the event, condemning it as unrepresentative or as an extension of the U.S.-led coalition.

Those include the Muslim Scholars Association and the Iraqi Islamic Party, both Sunni Muslim groups, and followers of firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

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(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Yasser Salihee in Baghdad contributed to this report.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CONFERENCE

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