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Iraqis, U.S Meet Tuesday to Plot Future

Iraqis, U.S Meet Tuesday to Plot Future

Posted - Apr. 14, 2003 at 4:58 p.m.



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CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar (AP) -- As the shooting dies down, the work of building a new Iraq begins with a tentative step forward -- a U.S.-picked gathering of some of the country's fractious factions to plot the nation's future.

Tuesday's meeting in the city of Ur, birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia, brings together representatives from across the country: Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as exiles who have lived for years outside Iraq.

It is, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, "an important and great day for the Iraqi people."

But it also offers a preview of the kind of tumult expected in the months ahead among groups that distrust America nearly as much as they distrust each other.

Many Iraqis are staying away from Tuesday's meeting -- because they oppose U.S. plans to install retired Gen. Jay Garner as an interim leader.

On Monday, the largest Iraqi Shiite group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said it would boycott the meeting and refuse to recognize the temporary U.S.-led administration.

"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government. Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization," Abdul Aziz Hakim, one of the group's leaders, told a news conference in Tehran, Iran.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that not all groups will want to participate. They have played down expectations -- the fact that the conference is occurring at all, they say, is a success story in itself.

This is only "the fledgling first meeting of what will hopefully be a much larger series of meetings across Iraq," said Jim Wilkinson, spokesman at U.S. Central Command.

"Not everyone can attend this meeting and the meeting is not designed to represent every single constituency inside and outside Iraq."

Other sessions around Iraq in the coming weeks are designed to bring together other Iraqis and exiles, and a national conference will ultimately select the interim authority, a senior U.S. government official told reporters here Monday.

The official said he hoped the administration would be selected within weeks, and that he anticipated that the United Nations would have a role in the process once the national conference occurs.

Many allies support an international conference to pick leaders of the interim government, as was done in Afghanistan. But the United States wants to assemble an interim government made up of a mix of supportive Iraqi nationals and exiles.

Tuesday's meeting is a first step toward that goal. About 100 Iraqis are expected to attend: half from inside Iraq, half exiles.

The moderator will be Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House envoy to Iraq who also played a key role in guiding the formation of a transition government in Afghanistan. Garner is also expected, along with representatives from coalition countries Britain, Australia and Poland.

Wilkinson stressed that the meeting was designed to get Iraqis talking about what they want for the future, and described the agenda as an "unscripted, free-flowing forum of ideas," that would be dominated by Iraqis talking, not Americans.

But an unscripted discussion in Ur could bring Iraq's hostilities to the surface. They're never far below.

There is the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims -- a Sunni minority that controlled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Shiite majority that wants to dominate.

But even among Shiite groups, there is fierce enmity; in the holy city of Najaf, fissures among Shiite factions were blamed for an incident Monday in which three Shiite clerics were threatened by a mob.

Kurdish groups, meanwhile, appear unwilling to compromise on their demands for more autonomy, and for expanding their borders to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the Kurdish parts of Mosul. Neighboring Turkey, fearing an uprising by its own Kurds, says this is unacceptable.

But the Kurdish groups are divided, too. The two major factions formed an alliance during the war, but now one has accused the other of breaking an agreement not to send Kurdish troops into Kirkuk.

Neither is there agreement among Iraqis on America's role.

Ahmed Chalabi, head of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, said the United States "should maintain military forces in Iraq until the first constitutionally, democratically elected government takes over."

How long will that take? "Less than two years," he said.

But other opposition leaders say privately they fear the U.S. administration is using the meeting to try to force Chalabi on them.

Chalabi was the first top Iraqi opposition leader airlifted by the U.S. military into southern Iraq -- a move interpreted by some as a way to help him build a power base among the Shiites, though American officials say he was brought in merely because he offered forces to the coalition.

Neither Chalabi nor many other leaders of anti-Saddam groups are likely to show up at the meeting; lower-level delegates are expected in their place. U.S. officials say the meeting was designed to be a working-level affair to allow Iraqis to get to know Garner.

But many of those who are attending say they don't want Garner leading the interim administration.

"We will discuss ideas of how to set up an Iraqi administration to fill the political, security and sovereignly vacuum," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a physician and opposition activist who is attending.

"We will press for any Iraqi civilian administration regardless of what the American say, an administration by Garner is not acceptable."

He said the Americans have provided opposition figures with this outline of how Garner's administration would be structured:

Each ministry would be headed by an American, either military or civilian. Each minister would have two American deputies and eight American advisers. The minister would have four other Iraqi advisers from inside the country and four Iraqi exiles.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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