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Iraq: U.S. Civil Administration To Meet With Political Leaders In Baghdad

The U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, retired U.S. general Jay Garner, is due to meet in Baghdad on 28 April with Iraqi political leaders demanding a voice in how the country is run during the U.S. occupation period. The meeting follows a first conference between Garner and Iraqi groups 10 days ago near Ur that was marked by tensions.

Prague, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Jay Garner, the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, says he is now ready to start getting Iraqis involved in running the country but he has yet to say what that involvement will entail.

Speaking after meeting with 60 academics and community leaders yesterday, he told reporters that "I think you'll begin to see the governmental process start next week, by the end of next week. It will have Iraqi faces on it. It will be governed by the Iraqis."

Garner also said that the start of the governmental process could take the shape of a forum in which Iraqis could make their views known to the U.S. civil administration.

"The only process that has been available thus far is for the people to get together and talk to us and say we want to do this. You've seen that emerge very well in the south. Of course, you haven't had to have it in the Kurdish part of the north. But we are going to start a governmental process here next week that will allow them a forum to come and do that type thing."

Beyond that, the retired general would say no more -- confirming that he is a man who likes to play with his cards close to his chest. Many correspondents already have abandoned hope of deciphering his statements, which include phrases like "governmental process" that can mean anything from a powerless advisory board to a transitional administration. The general has not yet established a press office to help make his plans any clearer.

So, it is with real interest that observers now wait for the 28 April meeting between Garner and the many Iraqi political leaders demanding a voice in how the country is run. The meeting in Baghdad provides the first opportunity for the U.S. civil administrator and Iraqi political figures to talk concretely about how much Washington will share power during the occupation period.

The Baghdad meeting follows a first, almost entirely symbolic gathering 10 days ago in southern Iraq when Garner met with former exiled opposition parties near the ancient ziggurat of Ur. That meeting saw all participants pledge to help rebuild the nation, clearing the way for more substantive talks to follow.

When U.S. officials and Iraqi politicians meet, the talks are likely to show how determined the Iraqi parties are to have a government role. But they also will almost certainly highlight how divided those same parties are over sharing power, either with the U.S. or each other.

The past week has seen one well-organized Shi'a group -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- demand that only Iraqis, not Americans, administer the country. Deputy head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told reporters two days ago that "there is no need for Mr. Garner to stay in Iraq."

"There is no need and its not important for Mr. Garner to stay here. These issues should have been handed over to the Iraqis because the Iraqis can administer and govern Iraq by themselves. The Iraqis should be able to choose their own government and the appropriate leaders for it."

SCIRI is an Iraqi exile group headquartered in Tehran that has long demanded Iraq become a theocracy. It is not clear how much it speaks for Iraq's majority Shi'a population, but in recent days some other rival Shi'a leaders have made similar calls.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of assassinated Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, is also reported to favor an Islamic state and has said that the Shi'a "will reject any government brought by America." Grand Ayatollah Al-Sadr commanded great respect among Shi'a before he was killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999.

A third major player in the Shi'a community, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, has not clearly stated his position but is believed to favor keeping the clergy out of politics.

It is not yet known which Shi'a factions might send delegates to the 28 April meeting. SCIRI, which has a militia of several tens of thousands of fighters, boycotted the gathering in Ur.

Top U.S. officials have recently ruled out any theocracy in Iraq. "The Washington Post" today quotes Garner as saying "it's hard to think an Islamic republic could be a democratic process." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the AP news agency that "if you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: 'That is not going to happen.'"

Other Iraqi leaders, including pro-U.S. politician Ahmed Chalabi, also demand a strong voice in running Iraq but want a secular democracy. Chalabi, co-founder of the exile opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC), has close ties to the Pentagon and was the only group to have its members flown into the Ur meeting by U.S. forces -- much to the annoyance of rivals.

Chalabi last week told reporters that he wants a U.S. presence in Iraq perhaps for two years to guarantee democracy takes hold but does not want a U.S. military government.

"There will be no U.S. military government, and the role of governing Iraq will be in the hands of Iraqis. I will tell you that this situation must be so, of necessity, because the state in Iraq has been merged with the [Ba'ath] party and when the party is destroyed, the state is paralyzed."

Chalabi himself did not go to Ur, reportedly in an effort to distinguish himself in the public's mind from the U.S. civil administration. It is not known if he will attend the Baghdad meeting. In the meantime, his U.S.-trained "Free Iraq" forces in recent days have begun establishing armed checkpoints to help assure security in some parts of Baghdad -- creating a de-facto power-sharing role for the INC.

Another secular group, the Iraqi National Accord, is drawn largely from disaffected members of the deposed Ba'ath party in the Iraqi military. It too wants a share of power but fears its membership could be targeted in any de-Ba'athification process -- something Chalabi and some U.S. media voices have strongly urged.

Other parties seeking a voice range from the Washington-based Iraqi National Group -- composed of exiled Iraqi professionals -- to the resurgent Iraqi Communist Party. They join the list of groups now establishing political offices in downtown Baghdad and seeking to broaden their base among ordinary Iraqis.

The two main Kurdish parties -- which have warmly welcomed Garner and hope for a largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan within a federal Iraqi state -- are also in Baghdad to secure their role in any interim government.

RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent in Baghdad Sami Shoresh says that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mas'ud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani will send representatives to the meeting on 28 April. But he says the leaders themselves will not attend.

"The Kurds will visit [the meeting] but not on the level of Talabani and Barzani," Shoresh reported. "[The attendees will be] on the level of political bureau heads in both Kurdish political parties. Now both political parties have their own headquarters in Baghdad. And there are some leaders of the KDP and PUK in these headquarters and they will participate."

Shoresh also said that the Kurds only will send their Baghdad representatives because they do not expect immediate breakthroughs from next week's session.

"The meeting in Baghdad will not be a very important meeting to decide about the future of Iraq. No, it will be a meeting for Iraqi opposition figures to get to know each other, Iraqi opposition outside and inside Iraq, to know each other, to have a common language, to understand each other and also [meet] with the Americans, to know the American plans regarding the future of Iraq."

The Kurds may be the most comfortable of all the Iraqi factions with the U.S. occupation because they have had their own self-government for the past 12 years and this does not appear threatened. Northern Iraq passed out of Baghdad's control after the 1991 Gulf War and was protected afterward by a U.S. and British patrolled no-fly zone.

In a visit to northern Iraq early this week, Garner assured Iraqi Kurds that "the leadership of Kurdistan will be full-fledged members of [the] governmental process."

Washington has yet to say how long it will stay in Iraq as it pursues its postwar policy of reviving the economy and helping Iraq to become a more democratic state.

Some U.S. government plans leaked to the media have envisioned 18 months of military rule -- possibly in cooperation with a transitional Iraqi authority or the UN -- to prepare the country for eventual elections.