April 16, 2003
The Associated Press
They agreed on a few basic principles - Iraq must be democratic, Saddam Hussein's Baath party must be dissolved, and the new government must be open to all national political groups. They also agreed to meet again in 10 days.
After that, the Iraqi factions attending a meeting to create a postwar government had plenty of "honest differences of opinion," as one speaker put it.
The 80 or so participants at Tuesday's U.S.-sponsored meeting to begin shaping Iraq's postwar government adopted a set of 13 points declaring that "the rule of law must be paramount." They were also assured by a White House envoy that the United States has "absolutely no interest" in ruling Iraq.
But in a measure of just how politically tricky the task ahead could be, some Muslims boycotted the meeting to protest U.S. plans to install a retired American general as Iraq's temporary administrator, and thousands demonstrated nearby, shouting: "No to America and no to Saddam!"
The first step toward creating a postwar government took place under a white-and-gold tent at Ur, the biblical birthplace of the patriarch Abraham and the cradle of civilization itself.
Participants included Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Arabs from inside Iraq and others who spent years in exile. U.S. officials invited the groups, which picked their own representatives.
The gathering ended with an agreement by show of hands to meet again in 10 days to discuss forming an interim authority.
The "13 points" document also outlined the participants' desire to create a federal system under leaders chosen by the Iraqis, not "imposed from outside."
The meeting was dominated by presentations from dozens of Iraqis, including a cleric from Nasiriyah who called for a separation between religion and politics and Iraqi exiles stressing the need for the rule of law.
"One of the bases of democracy is honest differences of opinion," Sheik Sami Azer al Majnoon said. "At the same time this is also one of the difficulties of democracy."
Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who will head the U.S.-led interim administration, opened the conference, held in the shadows of the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, the stepped-pyramid temple of the ancient Sumerians.
Wearing a twin American and Iraqi flag pin, Garner, who turned 65 Tuesday, asked: "What better birthday can a man have than to begin it not only where civilization began but where a free Iraq and a democratic Iraq will begin today?"
White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad assured the delegates that the United States has "no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq."
"We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values," Khalilzad said.
Thousands of Shiites - Iraq's most populous religious group but repressed under Saddam - demonstrated in nearby Nasiriyah.
"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government," Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite group, said in Iran. "Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization."
About a third of Iraq's 24 million people are Sunni; most of the rest are Shiite.
Iraq's Shiite majority has for years chafed under Sunni Muslim dominance, which dates to the early days of modern-day Iraq, which was created by Woodrow Wilson and leaders of the other Great Powers after World War I. Shiites see the fall of Saddam, a Sunni, as a chance to take what they see as their rightful political place.
The Shiites are also handicapped by an internal power struggle. A mob last week killed a prominent Shiite cleric opposed to Saddam as well as a cleric loyal to Saddam.
U.S. officials stressed that Tuesday's meeting was only the first of many and that they hope other Iraqis join the process.
Once selected, the interim administration could begin handing power to Iraqi officials in three to six months, but forming a government will take longer, officials said.
Sheik Ayad Jamal Al Din, a Shiite religious leader from Nasiriyah, urged delegates to craft a secular government. "The Islamic community can only flourish in circumstances of freedom which separates religion from politics, so that dictators will no longer be able to speak in the name of Islam," he said.
But Nassar Hussein Musawi, a schoolteacher, warned: "Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming."
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