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Iraqi Delegates Gather as Focus Stays on Najaf

A conference to build a government is eclipsed by partisan rifts and the clash with militants.

August 15, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As a three-day national conference to select a de facto parliament opens here today, hopes that it will be an all-inclusive political gathering that can help ease Iraq's searing divisions have been crushed.

The conference, also intended to lay the groundwork for future elections, still could prove to be an important step toward democracy. But for the moment, the fate of Iraq appears to depend largely on the outcome of the conflict in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf between the militia of cleric Muqtada Sadr and Iraqi and U.S. forces.

The Baghdad conference is being held under extraordinary security in the widespread expectation that it will be attacked with mortar fire or bombs. Most delegates broadly accept the legitimacy of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government.

Opponents who view the government as a U.S. puppet either have been excluded or are refusing to attend.

Moreover, the bloodshed in Najaf has deepened the chasm between the interim government and those who refuse to view it as legitimate.

That means that events in Najaf, not at the conference, hold the key to Iraq's future, said Hussein Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist who was a contender for the post of interim prime minister.

"A negotiated settlement would definitely make a very big improvement on the political scene in this country and allow us to prepare for general elections by January of next year," said Shahristani, who was imprisoned by ousted President Saddam Hussein. He is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate Shiite cleric considered Iraq's most influential religious leader, who is hospitalized in London.

"It's clear to everyone there's very strong polarization in the country, and unless we can accommodate each other, there is no way we can move forward," Shahristani said. "No amount of military force can solve this problem."

Jabber Habib, a Baghdad University political science professor, predicted, "A lot of people will boycott the conference."

Habib, who declined to participate, said attending the conference would be "difficult for Shiites, especially those who are not in the government ... while their religious center is being bombed."

Still, organizers say, the conference marks a significant moment in Allawi's efforts to consolidate his government's authority and move toward elections that could give the U.S.-installed government greater legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis.

Even if only half the political spectrum is represented, organizers see it as a chance for participants to develop experience in political debate and compromise, prerequisites for any successful democracy.

Although it will have only limited authority, a 100-member interim National Council selected at the conference will act as a check on the powers of Allawi's interim government. It will be able to approve the 2005 budget and override government decrees by a two-thirds vote.

The conference is intended to provide the "fundamental basis for building a democratic Iraq," said Safiya Suhail, a member of the conference's preparatory committee. "The time has come for people to hold dialogue, exchange their ideas and share their visions and hopes for the future Iraq.

"Most important, the conference needs to stress the importance of peaceful dialogue," said Suhail, who is the wife of Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin.

Some, however, believe that the limited participation will prove a setback to democracy.

"The conference delegates are chosen from the members of political parties and their friends and relatives, while it should be for all Iraqis," said Qais Azawi, a prominent political commentator in Baghdad. "The results of this conference will be failure. It will lead the Iraqi people to get more disappointed.

"The failure of this conference will lead to more insurgency movements, instability and disappointment," Azawi added.

Shahristani also questioned the effectiveness of a conference in which key points of view are not represented. The conference, he said, primarily reflects the groups represented in the U.S.-approved Iraqi Governing Council during the occupation.

The national conference initially was conceived as "a platform for the whole Iraqi political spectrum to participate in a national debate to take the political process forward to prepare elections," Shahristani said. "The way it's been handled so far, the conference has been dominated by the parties that were running the Governing Council, and this has not encouraged other political actors.

"Most notably, the Muqtada al-Sadr group and the Arab nationalists and the council of the Sunni clerics, and also a number of other political parties, have either been deprived participation or the situation has not been conducive for their participation," he said.

About 1,300 people have been designated to attend the conference, Suhail said.

They will elect 81 representatives to the interim National Council, and the remaining 19 will be appointed by the interim government, she said. Twenty-five seats on the council have been set aside for women.

"The fact that we were able to get rid of an oppressive dictator is a great achievement in itself," Suhail said.

"We have to admit that this particular event is not an absolutely democratic one, but it is the beginning and fundamental basis for a broader democracy and therefore broader representation.... This is somewhat of an experiment paving the path for bigger events in the future."

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Times staff writer Henry Chu and special correspondent Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.

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