Prague, 19 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It was clear that Iraq's National Conference was not going to satisfy everybody as it went into an unscheduled fourth day yesterday.
Some delegates independent of the main parties making up the interim government left the conference in protest over what they said was the big parties' dominance of the proceedings.
Jawdat al-Obeidi was among the protesters. "We represent Al-Multaka Democratic Party. We decided to withdraw from the [National] Conference because the parties in power dominated the proceedings. The High Preparatory Committee of the National Conference cannot solve the problems, such as the domination of the government parties. We decided to withdraw from the process because it was illegitimate, and it does not represent the composition of Iraqi society," al-Obeidi said.
"We have 81 people [to choose for the advisory council], and the parties demanding to sit on it could reach 200 or more. So, it is hard to satisfy all the parties because one can't have all of them participating in the list"
The independents were upset because nothing about the conference's main order of business -- electing a first "people's" council to advise the government -- seemed to be going as anticipated.
As conference delegates rose up to make impassioned speeches about events in Al-Najaf -- and the convention even dispatched a delegation to try to negotiate a truce there -- the election of a new Interim National Council bogged down in procedural wrangling.
Under the conference rules, the delegates were to vote on candidates for 81 seats on the advisory council, and candidates would need a 65-percent majority to win. The remaining 19 seats on the 100-member council were reserved for members of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).
But as delegates first quarreled over whether candidates should be elected separately or by lists -- then set about drawing up competing lists -- the proceedings became more confused.
Some lists were ruled out of order by conference organizers because they did not meet minimum representation requirements for women. Other lists were withdrawn by the sponsors themselves when it became clear they could not muster enough votes to win.
Late yesterday, the conference organizers decided time had run out. With no lists compiled by the delegates remaining in the competition, the organizers turned to a list endorsed by parties involved in the interim government as the sole contender for majority support. But instead of putting it to a vote, they declared it the winner by default.
That solution ended the conference, but left many delegates contending that Iraq's first experiment in participatory politics had been hijacked by the parties already in power.
Ismael Zayer is editor in chief of Iraq's "New Sabah" newspaper and one of the conference delegates. He says the waiving of the vote predetermined the conference's outcome:
"We didn't have the chance to put the candidates names in [the organizers' prepared list]. We had two choices. Either we go to the hall where the big parties prevail or we have a vote to achieve consensus for this list," Zayer said.
Critics of the proceedings say the default adoption of the government-backed list assures that the advisory council will essentially mirror the government itself.
But some observers say the council's makeup will be wider than just the parties in power.
Mahmud Uthman, a former IGC member and an independent Kurdish activist, spoke to RFE/RL today. "Well, the process, which was conducted in this way, gives a broader base to the government, but the list which was elected, of course, it has [a] majority [which], I think, are from the same parties who were in the Governing Council and who are now in the government," Uthman said.
He continued: "It is a step forward, I think. But I don't think you could call it a real democratic thing and [say that] everybody is satisfied."
A spokesman for one of the parties participating in the interim government, the Shi'a-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), today disputed charges that there was government domination of the council selection process.
Saad J. Qindeel, deputy dead of SCIRI's political bureau, told RFE/RL's stringer in Baghdad, Sami Alkhoja: "We have 81 people [to choose for the advisory council], and the parties demanding to sit on it could reach 200 or more. So, it is hard to satisfy all the parties because one can't have all of them participating in the list. The result is that the coalition will have part of these seats, not all, and it is natural that the main political parties should play a big role. If you call this domination .... I don't call it domination, I call it democracy."
The Interim National Council is intended to hear the views of citizens and to inform and question the government on policy issues. It will be empowered to veto government decrees by a two-thirds majority of its members. It will also have the right to approve the 2005 Iraqi national budget.
The council -- like the interim government -- is to function until the election of a new transitional government in January.
The creation of the Interim National Council is part of the plan for Iraq's political transition endorsed by the United Nations in a resolution in June. The resolution called for the "convening of a national conference reflecting the diversity of Iraqi society" and for the national conference "to select a consultative council."
The extent to which the delegates to the conference reflected Iraq's diversity was the subject of considerable debate in the run-up to the convention.
Many political independents charged the parties in power with dominating the delegate selection process, which was nonelective. Delegates were nominated by the country's political and religious groups, tribes, and civil associations.
Those 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.
(RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs contributed to this report.)For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".