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Iraq: U.S. Holds Policy Meeting In Southern Iraq Amid Protests, Defections

Iraq's future is being discussed today in the southern city of Nasiriyah, where up to 100 Iraqi political leaders have been invited to attend a U.S.-sponsored meeting. The forum is portrayed by Washington as an important step in defining a strategy to replace the regime of Saddam Hussein. But Iraq's main Shia opposition group boycotted the meeting and Ahmad Chalabi, the co-founder of the umbrella migr Iraqi National Congress, also snubbed the forum.

Prague, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States today invited representatives of Iraq's various religious and ethnic communities to discuss plans for the future after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The meeting is taking place under tight security at the Tallil air base near the city of Nasiriyah, in Iraq's predominantly Shia Muslim southern region.

Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of demonstrators led by Shia religious clerics had converged on the center of Nasiriyah to protest the meeting.

Chanting "No to America! No to Saddam!" the protesters demanded that Iraq's majority Shia community -- which has been dominated by Sunni Muslims since the country formally acceded to independence in 1932 -- be fairly represented in any post-Saddam administration free of U.S. influence.

Demonstrators also demanded that religious leaders of the Atabat, as Najaf and other holy cities of Iraq's Shia south are known, play a key role in the country's future.

In another setback for the White House, Iraq's main Shia exiled opposition group -- the Tehran-headquartered Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI -- boycotted the meeting to protest what they described as preparations for an administration imposed by foreigners.

Washington says it wants an Iraqi Interim Authority to administer the country, pending the organization of free elections and the establishment of a new, democratic regime. Last month, U.S. President George W. Bush designated Jay Garner, a retired U.S. Army General and a Vietnam War veteran, to run Iraq's civilian affairs during the interim period.

Garner, whose Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will also be charged with rebuilding Iraq's decaying infrastructure under the direct supervision of U.S. military commander General Tommy Franks, told the "New York Times" yesterday his task would be "messy and contentious."

Garner was due to arrive in Nasiriyah today from Kuwait to attend the opposition meeting, which is chaired by Bush's special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Representatives from Britain, Australia and Poland -- all countries that contributed to the war coalition against Iraq -- were also expected to attend.

The White House has apparently not made up its mind as to which form the future administration will take and which role will be assigned to either Saddam's exiled foes or domestic opposition. In an apparent bid to avert inter-communal tensions, the U.S. is also keen not to promote any particular religious or ethnic group.

Speaking yesterday at a news conference at the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw cautioned against too high expectations about the Nasiriyah meeting, despite the importance he said the conference would have in the process of restoring Iraq's governance.

"What is important to appreciate about this meeting in Nasiriyah is that it is not a one-off. It is the beginning of a process to restore governments."

The meeting had been originally depicted as a sort of pre-Loya Jirga, the tribal meeting that helped shape post-war Afghanistan. But looming divisions among Iraq's diverse factions apparently forced Washington to downgrade the meeting to the level of a regional conference pending a national meeting to select the interim administration.

Addressing reporters yesterday, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said the meeting prefigured a series of regional forums aimed at identifying who could possibly play a role in rebuilding Iraq's state structures.

"Hopefully, all those meetings will be broadly representational because, as you know, one of the core elements of our vision for the future of Iraq is that it have a representative government that represents all the different ethnic groups, religious groups, tribal groups. That is going to be very important. That is a strength that Iraq should build on, just as other countries have built upon their diversity and that is what we would hope for. So don't take this meeting as any single symbol. This is a first meeting. It is an important step. It is an opportunity for now liberated Iraqis to begin to add their voices to be heard from, to share ideas on what they think about their future and how they can move forward."

The U.S. reportedly asked up to 100 delegates to attend the meeting. Although the invitation list has not been released, groups such as the Iraqi National Accord -- an opposition organization made primarily of defectors from Saddam's Baath Party -- the Shia Muslim al-Dawa, or Islamic Call, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were expected to attend. Also invited were former middle-rank Baath party leaders.

Whether these groups sent delegates remains unclear. Although he has his headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraqi National Congress (INC) co-founder Ahmad Chalabi did not attend the meeting, but sent a representative in his stead.

Chalabi, whom many experts and observers see as a potential powerbroker in Iraq, arrived in Nasiriyah on 6 April at the head of 700 fighters of his fledgling Free Iraqi Forces. His return marked the end of 45 years in exile from Saddam-controlled Iraq.

In an interview published yesterday in France's "Le Monde" daily, Chalabi denied that he would seek a position in any future government and said he only wanted to help reconstruct Iraq's civil society after decades of repression.

But INC senior adviser Zaab Sethna yesterday cited uncertainty about the future to explain Chalabi's reluctance to enter the political fray for the time being. Sethna also said Chalabi and four other INC top leaders were planning to go to Baghdad soon.

Despite his comments made to "Le Monde," it is clear that Chalabi cannot be ignored.

The INC leader told the French newspaper that his U.S.-trained Free Iraqi Forces, which are also present in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, could serve as the nucleus of Iraq's future national army -- a move that could help him carry out his plans to eradicate all remnants of the Baath Party in the armed forces.

Chalabi also said he supported the return to Iraq of SCIRI's military wing, known as the Badr Brigade. This military force, which numbers thousands Iran-trained fighters, has been a bone of contention between Washington and Tehran.

Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Iran not to let the Badr Brigade, which he said the Pentagon viewed as a potentially hostile force, enter Iraq. Reports that Badr Brigade combatants are already in southern Iraq could not be independently confirmed.

The commander of the Shia military force, Abdul Aziz Hakim, warned yesterday in Tehran that SCIRI would not accept any U.S.-sponsored interim administration in Baghdad and said he favored an "all-Iraqi transitional government."

Unlike Chalabi, who does not object to the U.S. remaining in Iraq for two years, Hakim said coalition forces should not stay "even for one day after Saddam's regime is uprooted." He warned, though: "Our policy -- for the time being -- is to avoid clashes with them."