Prague, 16 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi National Conference is in the second of its three days and already it has turned into a forum on the government's policy in Al-Najaf.
"It's a conspiracy," one delegate, who gave his name only as Fallah, commented on the way interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is handling radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's revolt in Al-Najaf. "The Iraqi government carries responsibility [for the bloodshed in Al-Najaf] by inviting the American forces to attack the people. This is what I want to say and this is the opinion of [many of the Shi'a here at the conference]."
Such open criticism of the government -- unthinkable during Saddam Hussein's rule -- has been on ample display since the convention got under way on 15 August in Baghdad's heavily guarded administrative area known as the Green Zone.
Emotions are running high for several reasons.
It is the first time so many Iraqis have been able to take part in a popular convention organized and observed by the interim government. Many of the some 1,300 delegates, who have come from across Iraq, say they are determined to make their individual voices heard.
And, the convention is taking place against the biggest crisis yet to face Allawi's unelected administration. As the delegates meet, U.S. and Iraqi government forces are poised for what both Allawi and al-Sadr say could be the final struggle for control of Al-Najaf. The fighting threatens the Imam Ali Mosque -- one of Shi'a Islam's most revered sites -- which hundreds of al-Sadr's fighters are reported to be using as a shelter.
"The Iraqi government carries responsibility [for the bloodshed in Al-Najaf] by inviting the American forces to attack the people." -- unidentified delegate
Tensions at the conference have been running so high that little progress has been made so far toward the conference's main item of business -- creating a "people's" council to advise the government.
The conference is to fill 81 seats on the new 100-member Interim National Council. By the end of 15 August, the delegates had yet to agree on the rule by which the members are to be elected -- that is, individually, or in groups. The other 19 spots are reserved for members of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which dissolved in late May.
The Interim National Council is intended to hear the views of citizens and to inform and question the government on policy issues. It will have the power to veto orders or decrees by Allawi's cabinet by a two-thirds majority vote. And it will have the right to approve the 2005 Iraqi national budget.
Like the interim government, the advisory council is a temporary body due to last just seven months until Iraq's first elections in January. The elections will choose a transitional national assembly that in turn is to select a new administration to lead the country to direct elections of a representative government by the end of 2005.
But if the scope of the convention is limited, many delegates seem to want to turn it immediately into post-Saddam Iraq's first parliamentary assembly.
One delegate, Nafi al-Zamily, told reporters the government's failure to resolve the Al-Najaf crisis proved the need for an advisory council that could judge the government's actions.
"Why is there a conference to elect a legislative authority while the government is shelling Najaf?" al-Zamily asked. "We believe that this conference should continue and should result in a legislative authority that would play its role and judge the interim government."
During yesterday's proceedings, some Shi'a delegates formed a caucus to protest the government's military operations in Al-Najaf. Together with several non-Shi'a participants, they drafted a letter to Allawi calling for dialogue with al-Sadr and demanding an immediate cease-fire.
Delegates at the conference today agreed to send a delegation to Al-Najaf to urge al-Sadr to end his militia's fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces. An al-Sadr spokesman, Sheikh Ahmad al-Shibani, said the cleric is ready to speak to the delegation.
Despite the high emotions surrounding the conference in Baghdad, the event is likely to end tomorrow as it began -- as a mostly symbolic step toward building Iraq's democracy.
Adnan Pachachi, a leading member of the former Governing Council, told RFE/RL in Baghdad recently that the advisory council is a way to ensure the government "does not deviate" too much in its exercise of power. But he said a true popular assembly will only come after the elections early next year.
"We can say [the national council] is sort of a supervisory, overseeing body to see the government does not deviate too much, so the government will have to take the people's views into consideration," Pachachi said. "But this is really of lesser importance than the elections. Unfortunately, people seem to forget the elections as they concentrate on the conference."
He continued: "The elections really would be the first time we are going to have a credible, free, honest elections, with the United Nations and international observers -- if not supervision then at least observation. So there is a chance to have really elections reflect to a large extent the desires and views of the Iraqi people."
The delegates are drawn from the country's 18 provinces and include representatives of Iraq's main political parties and main religious groups. They also include civil society activists and tribal leaders. The UN increased an originally planned number of 1,000 delegates by adding 300 more names at the last minute to broaden participation in the conference.
However, several influential opponents of Allawi's government have boycotted the proceedings. They include al-Sadr's movement and the Sunni Muslim Clerics Association.
Sheikh Muhammad Bashar al-Faidhi of the Sunni clerics association told the British daily "The Guardian" of 15 August that "the conference is just about putting a nice face on the [U.S.] occupation."
(RFE/RL stringer in Baghdad Sami Alkoja contributed to this report.)For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".