Prague, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Talks are beginning in Iraq today on who should rule the country now that Saddam Hussein's regime has been toppled.
The meeting in Nasiriyah comes a day after U.S. troops captured Tikrit, the regime's last stronghold -- a move that means the war is all but over.
The U.S. has invited representatives from exile opposition groups, as well as Iraqis who lived under Hussein. About 60 Iraqis are expected to attend, representing radical and mainstream Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim groups, Kurds, and supporters of the monarchy overthrown in 1958. The meeting, at a U.S.-controlled air base near the city, is expected to be the first of many before the country is turned over to Iraqi rule.
"What's important to appreciate about this meeting in Nasiriyah is that it's not a one-off. It's the beginning of a process to restore governments. In Iraq, we have people with immense skills and great talents. It's not a Third World country. This is a developed country. It's actually the cradle of civilization -- West and East," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said today.
The meeting is part of a three-phase plan for postwar Iraq. First, the U.S. plans a brief period of military rule. Jay Garner, a retired U.S. general, will run the initial civil administration and report to U.S. war commander General Tommy Franks.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that the next phase -- kicked off today -- will result in an interim authority that represents the Iraqi people. "The second phase, beginning a few weeks after the end of the conflict, will see the establishment of a broad-based, fully representative, Iraqi interim authority. Working with the UN secretary-general, coalition military leaders and others will help the Iraqi people to identify which leaders might participate in this interim authority."
He continued, "The third phase will then bring into being a fully representative Iraqi government, once a new constitution has been approved as a result of elections, which we hope could occur around a year after the start of the interim authority."
Garner is expected to attend today's meeting, along with British and Australian representatives. Also attending is U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who played a similar role in Afghanistan after U.S. forces ousted the Taliban government in late 2001.
U.S. officials have said they hope an interim authority could be up and running within weeks. Others say it could take months. And Garner yesterday said he is concerned that the transition has gotten off to a slow start.
There are already several signs of the difficulties ahead. The main exile umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress, is sending only minor officials instead of Ahmad Chalabi, it's high-profile leader.
The French news agency AFP said several thousand people have been protesting in the town center today against the meeting, chanting, "Yes to Freedom, Yes to Islam, No to America."
And Iraq's main Shiite group said earlier that it will not attend today's talks because of what it sees as Washington's attempts to impose leaders on the country. Abdelaziz Hakim, a leader of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said his group does not accept "a U.S. umbrella or anybody else's."
Britain's Straw put a brave face on the boycott. He said he's glad the group feels able to express its opinions -- something, he said, that would have seen them tortured or dead under Saddam Hussein.
Despite the discord among the various groups, the top British official in postwar Iraq said there appears to be agreement on one thing. Brigadier General Tim Cross said, "They want us to leave as quickly as possible."