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U.S. hosts meeting of Iraqis; thousands protest

©Associated Press

April 16, 2003

UR, Iraq -- Under a white and gold tent, the United States assembled Iraqi factions Tuesday and told them it has "absolutely no interest" in ruling Iraq. Some Muslims boycotted the meeting and thousands demonstrated nearby.

The gathering of about 80 people in this ancient city on the Euphrates River -- a first step toward creating a postwar government -- ended with an agreement by show of hands to meet again in 10 days to discuss forming an interim authority.

Participants also agreed to a list of 13 points, beginning with the principle that Iraq must be democratic and calling for the dissolution of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

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," speaker Sheik Sami Azer al Majnoon told the crowd. "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 in Iraq, opened the conference under a tent in the shadows of the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, a terraced temple platform of the Sumerians.

Garner, wearing a twin American and Iraqi flag pin, turned 65 Tuesday. "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?" he asked.

White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told the estimated 80 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.

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 representatives.

Many Iraqis boycotted the meeting to protest U.S. plans to install Garner atop an interim administration. Thousands of Shiites -- Iraq's most populous religious group but repressed under Hussein -- demonstrated in nearby Nasiriyah.

"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government," one Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, said in Iran. "Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization."

Hakim's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is the country's largest Shiite group.

U.S. officials stressed that Tuesday's meeting was only the first of many -- and their hope that other Iraqis will 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.

Delegates also discussed the contentious issue of religion's role in society. 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."

But Nassar Hussein Musawi, a schoolteacher, disagreed: "Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming."

Hoshyar Zebari, a representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party, called the meeting a "kickoff," and explained the lukewarm response of some in attendance: "They are still nervous. They don't believe Saddam is gone yet."

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