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Iraqi groups jockey for advantage as council's selection nears

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A nationwide election for the new Iraq's first parliament is at least five months away, but the jockeying for political advantage already has started. Groups that hope to play a big role will attend a three-day conference later this month where members of the Interim National Council will be chosen.

The council will be mainly an advisory body, but it can veto executive orders from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi if it can muster a two-thirds majority, and it must approve the nation's 2005 budget.

Just as important: It may provide a platform that individuals and groups can use to launch into prominent positions when elections take place. Political parties and other groups have been vying for delegate spots and seeking alliances.

The maneuvering indicates that the political process, part of the United Nations-sanctioned plan to create a democratic Iraq, has widespread support among important Iraqi organizations. Not even the violent insurgency and condemnations by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—an important holdout—appear likely to derail it.

Fuad Masoum, the head of the government committee that's preparing the conference, said Wednesday that the committee soon would begin picking roughly 1,000 delegates for the conference, who will then choose 100 council members from their own ranks.

At stake at the conference are opportunities not only for seats on the Interim National Council but also for positions and partnerships that could improve the odds for success at the polls. The general election is to occur no later than Jan. 31.

"The deals have begun," said Sadeq al Musawi, an Iraqi Constitutional Monarchy party spokesman and a member of the government committee that's selecting the delegates.

The conference is expected to take place after July 20, though the dates haven't been set yet. It has the potential to build public confidence in the fledgling government, provided it yields consensus on a council that reflects the spectrum of Iraqi society, al Musawi said.

"We can't do elections now, but we can do something close," he said. "We (the national council) are not a copy of the (interim) government; we are a copy of the people. That's the message we want to send."

Conference delegates are intended to come from a cross-section of political, social, religious and ethnic groups. More than half—584—will come from Iraq's 18 provinces. Another 144 spots are reserved for political party representatives. The remaining seats are reserved for an array of interests, including scientists, academics, aid organizations and unions. A quarter of all delegates are to be women.

Outlining the conference's goals Wednesday, Masoum billed it as the first opportunity for representatives from across the country to meet and begin to chart the nation's course.

With at least one notable exception, Iraq's prominent political and religious groups have accepted this process and are preparing for the general election.

That includes the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Muslim group.

It's still gauging public opinion and crafting its strategy but at this point prefers to build a coalition instead of running alone, said Ayad al Samaraee, deputy to the party's secretary general. "We shall work mainly on this strategy, if we find enough allies to join us."

The party has allies on the committee that's selecting the conference delegates, al Samaraee said. So in addition to the party's own representatives, "We have others that have close links to the party. Unless you have a stake in this committee, you can't be sure things will be fair."

While al Samaraee said securing seats at the conference or on the national council could improve the party's chances in January, the spokesman for the Shiite House, a group of the nation's most powerful Shiite Muslim organizations, said he saw no advantage to such positions.

"It's not related to this election process," said Shiite cleric Homam Hamudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who's a member of the committee selecting conference delegates. "But because we care about the political process in Iraq, we decided to participate."

Baghdad University's Amer Hassan Fayadh, an assistant professor of modern political thought, said he wasn't surprised that prominent political and religious groups had decided to seek power through the new government.

"I think there's an agreement among the political parties that they will go through the democratic process, not go outside it," Fayadh said. "Each authority asks for acceptance from the people, and the best way to get this acceptance is by elections."

Remaining outside the process is al-Sadr, whose militia has battled American troops. The Najaf-based cleric had expressed interest in entering the official political arena but lately has maintained his distance, often with fiery condemnations of the new government.

The political process appears robust enough to withstand threats from al-Sadr or others who might try to undermine it, Fayadh said. The wheeling and dealing of political and religious groups also is unlikely to be an obstacle to elections.

"Maneuvering during the democratic process, this election, is natural," Fayadh said. "Fighting this democratic process would be threatening."


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