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Iraq: National Conference To Take Place Amid Mounting Security Concerns

By Timothy Jasek --> As insecurity and violence continue to rage in Iraq, the country is getting ready for a key step in its postwar political transition. This week marks the scheduled start of the Iraqi National Conference, which is tasked with selecting the body that will oversee the work of the country's interim government. The new National Council will have the power to approve the budget, veto legislation, and question ministers on policy. But some highly influential groups -- including the Sunni Muslim Clerics' Association and supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- are already refusing to participate. So what can the Iraqi National Conference hope to achieve?

Prague, 26 July 2004 -- Nearly 1,000 Iraqis are expected to gather for the conference to select the National Council which, in effect, will function as the country's parliament.

The National Council is meant to aid the transfer of power to Iraq's new interim government.

But some Iraqis have complained that the conference and the council will lack credibility because conference delegates will not be elected.

Faisal al-Istrabani is an adviser on constitutional and legal affairs to Adnan Pachachi, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Baghdad, al-Istrabani says that selecting -- rather than electing -- delegates is the right thing to do during the transitional period from dictatorship to democracy.

"To get us to the January elections, we are living through an exceptional period of time, exceptional for a variety of aspects," al-Istrabani says. "One, that we in Iraq are indeed for the first time in 45 years heading toward elections. And two, that the elections being some few months off, it is necessary for us to have an alternative mechanism."

The selected parliament, or National Council, will be a temporary institution and will end its functions after next year's elections.

Al-Istrabani says the conference and the council will already set Iraq apart from some of its less democratically advanced neighbors in the Middle East.

Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, tells RFE/RL the selection of delegates to the conference, though not a fully democratic exercise, will be a practical step toward democracy.

"I think it is a major shift on the road toward creating some sort of democratic system in Iraq," Alani says. "Certainly, it is not ideal, it is not great, not what one wishes."

Considering the political circumstances and the continuing security problems in Iraq, Alani says, the selection of the conference marks a "serious step forward."
An adviser to former Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi, Faisal Al-Istrabani, says the conference and the council will already set Iraq apart from some of its less democratically advanced neighbors in the Middle East.

Roughly 1,000 delegates will be selected to attend the National Conference. They will comprise representatives from the country's provincial bodies, as well as delegates chosen by political parties, religious and tribal groups, and nongovernmental organizations.

The conference is expected to last two or three days. During that time, the delegates will elect 100 representatives to serve on the National Council.

But a number of power groups have already refused to participate in the National Conference. This might leave some groups with no political representation, and might cast doubt on the legitimacy of the council.

The radical Shi'a movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr has already said it will not send delegates to the conference. The Muslim Clerics' Association, which is believed to have close ties to Sunni insurgents, is also refusing to participate.

Alani of the Royal United Services Institute says both groups are expecting democratization to fail in Iraq, leaving them the opportunity to seize power. But, he adds, by refusing to participate in the National Conference, both groups are taking a risky political gamble.

"I think they might be marginalized at the later stage, if they are not going to take part in this process, and the process proves to be a successful one. I think they will be marginalized," Alani says.

It is not yet certain when and if the security situation in Iraq will allow the conference to begin.

The United Nations has already suggested the conference be postponed until late August.

Fuad Massoum, the chairman and chief organizer of the National Conference, on 23 July said postponing the event could cause the political process to "lose credibility in the eyes of the Iraqi people."

But Alani says the push for the current timetable also carries risks -- particularly if security conditions continue to deteriorate: "Even if you insist that this process must go ahead, in disregard of the security situation, I don't think this process will be a successful one. It's not a question of sticking to the timetable. [It will be difficult] if the security situation does not improve."

Though violence has decreased somewhat after the transfer of power, Alani says insurgents may attempt to sabotage the conference.