Iraqi factions open talks amid infighting, protests

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In their first tentative steps toward democracy after decades of dictatorship, Iraqi religious and political leaders opened talks in the ancient city of Ur on Tuesday aimed at forging a postwar government.

Not much was accomplished. The delegates convened in a tent several hours behind schedule, faced a boycott by key factional leaders, suffered the scorn of thousands of nearby protesters and broke up after agreeing to meet again in 10 days.

Still, it was a start toward self-government, and however halting, it came only one day after U.S. military officers declared that major combat in Iraq was over.

Elsewhere in Iraq, an eerie peace settled over war-torn Baghdad as Iraqi policemen helped U.S. Marines restore order. Marines will begin to withdraw from Baghdad and northern Iraq on Thursday, to be replaced by Army troops, in preparation for the Marines' post-war role as military rulers of southern Iraq.

In Kut on Tuesday, hundreds of protestors blocked Marines from entering the city hall to meet a radical anti-American Shiite cleric. And in the port city of Umm Qasr, 10 civic leaders functioning as a rudimentary "town council" under British supervision held a press conference on getting their town up and running again.

But it was the meeting in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, that symbolized Iraq's state today: Its tentative first step toward democracy was marred by boycotts, infighting and protests.

About 80 Iraqi exiles and others just freed from Saddam's rule gathered with U.S. sponsors. White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told delegates that America holds "no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq."

But in the neighboring city of Nasiriyah, thousands of Shiites rallied against American plans for an interim government, chanting "no to America, no to Saddam!"

"The Iraqi people don't trust this. You saw today what happened in Nasiriyah with the demonstrations," said Abu Bilal al Adib, a spokesman for the Dawa (Islamic Call) Party in Tehran. His group had been invited, but refused to attend. "Our people are unhappy with what the Americans are doing; they want to be independent."

Also boycotting the event was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shiite group. "We will not accept if they even stay one day in Iraq," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, the group's second in command.

Before the meeting began, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party, Iraq's largest Kurdish group, had accused the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of making a grab for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in violation of a U.S.-brokered accord.

If the protests, bad blood and sit-outs showed how difficult the transition to democracy may be, many still hailed the Ur gathering as a historic event.

It was held under a golden tent on a makeshift U.S. airbase next to the ziggurat ruin, a 4,000-year-old terraced pyramid of the ancient Assyirans and Babylonians. Some Iraqi exiles cried as they hugged one another. One dropped to his knees and kissed the ground.

"Saddam reduced the country to such a state that it was necessary for people to sell off personal possessions," said Hatem Mukhliss, an Iraqi exile. "Now it's time to take our country back," he said. In his speech, he quoted John F. Kennedy on serving one's country.

Participants included Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites both from inside the country and from long exile. Perhaps five Iraqi women attended. U.S. officials invited specific groups, but each picked their own representatives.

Iraqis debated whether to separate mosque and state.

"We reject the concept of a confessional democracy that would prevent the Iraqi people from practicing religion," said Sheikh Ayad Jamal al Din, a Shiite religious leader from Nasiriyah. "Dictators may not speak in the name of religion," Din said, quoting the Koran.

Nassar Hussein Musaw, a secondary school teacher, said the two must be inseparable. "Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming," he said.

Another speaker urged resistance to revenge killings.

"I ask you to resist the infection of our state by violence, especially political vengeance," said Rend Francke, one of the women present. "Shunning violence doesn't mean forgiving past crimes; it means confronting them with law and justice."

At the meeting's end, Iraqis were urged to move forward by Jay Garner, the former U.S. Army general who is in charge of the post-war transition to self-rule.

"The first votes a free Iraq (should be) when the next meeting is," Garner said.

He assured Iraqis that the allied coalition would rebuild Iraq, but that their own political development had to go on simultaneously.

"It's the beginning of a process to restore government," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in Qatar. "In Iraq, we have people of immense skills. It's not a Third World, it's a developed world—it's the cradle of civilization."

Tuesday's session was to be the first in a series. Details of the next meeting, on April 25, have yet to be worked out. U.S. officials said Iraqis must present more definite proposals for the Iraqi Interim Authority, which is to help the country through its transition to full self-rule. "We may have some ideas of our own we'll share," the official said. We MAY," he said, with emphasis.

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials announced that Thursday's massive "repositioning" will see the Army's V Corps taking over the eastern half of Baghdad and territory as far north as Tikrit now controlled by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. With 60,000 Marines and 25,000 British troops, IMEF will control all of Iraq south of Baghdad.

The changes signaled a shift from combat positions to administrative lines of responsibility set by the U.S. Central Command for the post-war occupation.

In Doha, Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of U.S. Central Command warned that while Iraq's military has been destroyed or disbanded, danger still remains.

"We still have not been in every area of the country yet. It's not time to say that's the last military action. We still have individuals, we still have regime death squads, we still have 80 suicide vests that are unaccounted for. Our military work is not complete. It's still on-going," Brooks said.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the foreign ministers of six oil-rich Persian Gulf nations called for the United Nations to play a major role in rebuilding Iraq.

But in Geneva, Switzerland, U.N. officials said its international staff would not fly to northern Iraq until Thursday, postponing their arrival by two days, because of safety fears. The U.N. team hopes to evaluate needs for food, water and health care in northern Iraq provinces as a first step toward relief efforts.

Back in Washington, President Bush received a phone call from French President Jacques Chirac, the first time the two have talked since long before the war began March 20. Bush has not hidden his anger at Chirac for opposing Bush's drive to get the U.N. Security Council to endorse using military force.

A Chirac spokeswoman said their 20-minute chat was "positive." A White House spokesman used the word "businesslike."


(Smolowitz reported from U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar; Gerlin reported from Baghdad. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Jeff Wilkinson in Umm Qasr, Iraq; David Montgomery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Sorayah Sarhaddi Nelson in Tehran, Iran; and Tony Pugh at the Pentagon.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.