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Iraq: Garner Meets In Baghdad With Iraqi Leaders To Discuss Future Government

The U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Jay Garner, met today in Baghdad with Iraqi political leaders who demand a voice in running the country during the U.S. occupation period. The meeting, which brought together Iraqi leaders from a wide spectrum of parties, comes as Washington has yet to spell out what kind of power it might be willing to share with Iraqi politicians, and when.

Prague, 28 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. civil administrator Jay Garner told Iraqi leaders today that Washington considers it a responsibility to give their country a democratic form of government.

Opening a meeting in Baghdad with some 250 prominent Iraqi clerics and politicians, Garner described that responsibility this way: "Now, our responsibility is very heavy because those that began civilization thousands of years ago have passed the mantle to us, and it is our responsibility to give democracy birth here today."

He also said that Washington is determined to create a democratic system in which all of Iraq's groups are represented.

"The reason I am here and General Tim Cross, my deputy, is here is to create an environment in Iraq which will give us a process to start a democratic government, which represents all people, all religions, all tribes, all the ethnics, all professions, and to begin that process so that we can have a government that represents the freely elected will of the people," he said.

Today's meeting sought to establish that sort of broad representation by bringing together politicians and religious leaders from across a spectrum of Iraqi society. In the audience were clerics from both the Shi'ite majority and the traditionally dominant Sunni Muslim minority, as well as Kurds from the north of the country. There were also tribal chiefs and urban professionals.

Many of those attending were people who stayed in Iraq throughout the regime of Saddam Hussein, while others were returning exiles. The meeting, postponed from its original date on 26 April coincided, by chance, with Saddam Hussein's 66th birthday. The whereabouts of the recently deposed Iraqi leader remain unknown.

One delegate, Ghassan al-Atiya, told Reuters TV that he saw the meeting as a test of whether Iraqi leaders can work together in the post-Hussein era.:

"The fact that we are meeting in Baghdad in itself is a milestone, and this is a litmus test for all of us Iraqis how we carry on our debate, how we raise this issue," al-Atiya said.

Among those attending the discussions were representatives of the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi. Also attending were representatives of the two Iraqi-Kurd factions -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mas'ud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.

Another key group to attend today's session with Garner was the Shi'a-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. The Tehran-headquartered group boycotted a meeting with Garner two weeks ago near the southern city of Al-Nasiriyah, saying that Iraqis do not want Americans to administer the country.

However, SCIRI representatives said ahead of today's meeting that they would participate if Washington met demands that Iraqis be free to choose their own interim government. It is not immediately clear what those demands are or to what extent Washington responded to them.

SCIRI's deputy leader, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, said recently that the group is willing to work initially for a national political government for Iraq but that it believes Iraqis eventually will "seek an Islamic republic system." Washington has ruled out a theocracy for Iraq.

SCIRI is just one of several groups claiming to speak for Iraq's Shi'a, who compose some 60 percent of the population. Another emerging Shi'a leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, did not attend or send a representative. He is the son of the highly respected Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999 by presumed agents of Hussein. Moqtada al-Sadr has said "the Shi'a will reject any government brought by America."

Washington has yet to say what kind of role Iraqi leaders will play in the occupation period or even how long U.S. soldiers will remain in the country. Some U.S. government plans previously leaked to the media have envisioned 18 months of military rule -- possibly in cooperation with a transitional Iraqi authority or the UN -- to prepare for eventual elections.

Garner said recently that "a governmental process" involving Iraqis will begin this week and suggested it could take the shape of a forum "for people to get together and talk to us." But he did not specify what influence Iraqis participating in the process would have with the U.S. officials now running the country or whether any concrete powers would be shared with them.

As Garner met with Iraqi leaders today, several thousand protesters, mostly Shi'ite Muslims, staged the latest of a series of rallies held since U.S. troops came into Baghdad on 9 April.

Many of the demonstrators protested that Shi'ite leaders were not adequately represented at today's talks. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova was at the protest and filed this description of the crowd's demands:

"They're chanting and they're holding these billboards saying that they refuse violence, terrorism, aggression, and injustice, and another billboard says that a government that does not respect the honorable Islamic scholars is illegal, and one of them says, 'Democracy, But Where Are Our Representatives in Your Conference?'"

Others at the demonstration protested Washington's detention over the weekend of a recently returned exile politician who had declared himself the new mayor of Baghdad. The U.S. Central Command said Muhammad Muhsen al-Zubaydi had been acting without U.S. authority and had been seeking to profit personally by registering Iraqi bureaucrats to return to work under his auspices.

Garner met with the Iraqi leaders today under tight security, with U.S. tanks blocking the streets outside and American soldiers patrolling the conference premises. The tight security comes after unknown parties fired flares into an ammunitions depot in a southern suburb of the city on 26 April, killing at least 12 people.