Baghdad/Prague, 17 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At times, it seems that everybody at the National Conference feels he is speaking for the whole country.
So many people jump up to voice their opinions that journalists covering the event have no chance even to get the speakers' names.
One unidentified delegate declared that Iraq has no need for "special courts" to arraign suspected insurgents who are arrested by security forces: "We represent the Iraqi people. All the spectrum of the Iraqi people are represented in the conference. We do not want a special court. Why do we need special courts? We have a Criminal Code, so what is the need for the special courts, which were formed by the Americans?"
The subject of special courts -- like a host of other concerns being raised -- does not appear on the convention's official agenda. That agenda is limited to creating the first "people's" council to advise the interim government.
Specifically, the conference is to elect 81 members of a 100-person interim National Council that will be empowered to veto government decrees by a two-thirds majority. The other 19 seats are reserved for members of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).
"We admit this conference does not take the place of direct elections and has come instead of it. But we also would like to ask, after all this, what practical suggestions did [the critics] offer us?" - al-Yawir
But even as the some 1,300 delegates at the conference debate how to elect the majority of the council's 100 members, everybody seems to see the meeting as a chance to advise the advisory council about what to tell the government, even before the advisory council is formed.
The free-ranging discussion, suggestions, and proposals that resulted amply demonstrate the extent to which ordinary Iraqis are interested in participatory politics after decades of exclusion from the halls of power. Such public discussion of government policies was unheard of in the Hussein era. Indeed, even in the post-Hussein era, this week's gathering is the first in which citizens have been able to voice their opinions in an official forum.
But amid all the claims by delegates to be speaking for the country, two questions remain. Just how representative of the Iraqi population are these delegates, and how did they get to Baghdad? The questions have been the subject of much debate, both before and during the conference.
During the opening speech on 15 August, interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir acknowledged criticism that the delegates were not directly elected by the people. But al-Yawir said the conference organizers had tried to create a selection process that was broadly inclusive and that -- given Iraq's security situation -- there were no practical alternatives.
"We admit this conference does not take the place of direct elections and has come instead of it," he said. "But we also would like to ask, after all this, what practical suggestions did they [the critics] offer us?"
Delegates to the conference were originally going to be selected through an arcane procedure proposed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). But that plan met with stern resistance from many Iraqis.
So, instead of people from various governorates, or administrative regions, choosing the delegates, the country's political and religious groups, tribes, civil associations, and national personalities nominated their candidates. Still, many political independents accuse Iraq's main parties of dominating the selection process.
One independent Shi'a leader, Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, said ahead of the conference that "the parties will eat the entire cake. The parties got what they wanted -- they got to control the Governing Council and the National Conference, and they are going to control the new parliament."
Such complaints prompted political advisers from the United Nations to ask organizers to invite 300 additional people at the last minute. Many of these additional delegates were from religious and ethnic groups deemed to be underrepresented.
Amid all the debate over representation, the conference had to be postponed from its original time frame of late July to this week. Conference organizers say now that the final 1,300 delegates do represent all of Iraq's regions and all of its main political parties and religious groups. Some groups are clearly missing, however.
One is the movement of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Another is the Muslim Clerics Association, a Sunni group that Washington suspects of ties to insurgents in Al-Fallujah. Still another missing figure is Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, a former close ally of Washington now under an Iraqi arrest warrant for counterfeiting money.
Observers like former IGC member Adnan Pachachi say there are other missing groups, as well. He said the most important of these are nationalist groups that are boycotting the interim government phase of Iraq's transition process.
"Some have declined, yes. The nationalist element -- there is a group that has just been formed called the Constituent Conference [that is not attending, for example]. But they are all going to, they said, take part in the [January] elections, which gives you an idea how far more important the elections are," Pachachi said.
The January election is to choose a transitional National Assembly. The National Assembly will select a transitional government to lead the country to direct elections of a representative government by the end of 2005. For many observers, the question of how representative this week's National Conference is will only be answered when the names of the 100-member advisory council are announced.
The rules for forming the advisory council call for it to represent Iraq along tribal, geographical, political party, religious, and social lines. Of the 81 members the conference is to elect, 10 are to be drawn from Iraq's tribes, 10 from among civil society activists, 21 from Iraq's governorates, 21 from political parties, and 11 from religious minorities. Another eight spots are reserved for leading Iraqi personalities.
But some observers say they will judge the inclusiveness of the process by the extent to which the advisory council differs from the party makeup of the interim government itself.
Ismail Zayer is editor in chief of Iraq's "New Sabah" newspaper and one of the conference delegates. "[The] big five parties [have] decided who is whom and who will be a member of that parliament," he said. "And this is not democratic. They are saying we need a parliament that can work in harmony with the government. We would like to have the government under the control of the parliament, not the other way around."
It is still unclear whether participants will choose the members of the advisory council today or whether the conference will have to go into overtime. Under the rules, the delegates must first finish work on draft papers presented to four working committees and send recommendations to the full floor. As of 12 p.m. today, they were still discussing the first draft.For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".