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Iraq: Baghdad Dispatch -- Protests As Iraqi Delegates Meet To Discuss Postwar Government

There were protests today in Baghdad as some 250 Iraqi delegates met in the capital to discuss how the country should be governed after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The U.S.-appointed administrator for postwar Iraq, retired U.S. General Jay Garner, convened the gathering. Among those attending the talks were representatives of the Iraqi National Congress and officials from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. While the meeting was being held, several thousand protesters, mostly Shi'ite Muslims, held a rally in the capital. Demonstrators were upset that Shi'ite leaders from the holy city of Al-Najaf were, in their opinion, not adequately represented at the talks. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova attended today's protests and filed this report.

Question: Who was behind today's demonstrations in Baghdad?

Eshanova: This demonstration is a protest against today's conference organized by Jay Garner. They are holding right now a meeting with the political parties and representatives of various political parties in Baghdad. And these people came from Najaf, from Karbala, from the holy cities of Shi'a Muslims, and they marched to the Palestine Hotel, which is in the center of the city. They were told that this meeting with General Garner will be held in the Palestine Hotel, and that's why they came to this place to protest that their representatives are not invited.

So this protest meeting is organized by the Society of Honorable Scholars of Najaf, which consists of Shi'a leaders, ayatollahs, and their spiritual leaders. So 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?'

So they started in the early morning today and now they are saying their afternoon prayers. In the beginning, there were around 3,000 people, but now there are around 1,000 people left.

Question: Why are they protesting?

Eshanova: They feel ignored by the American government. At the same time, Shi'a Muslims represent the majority of the [population's religion] -- more than 60 percent. And they think that the Shi'a and their leaders are being ignored by the American administration and that is why they are not invited to today's conference. And that's why they feel angry with the Americans who didn't invite them. And they say they will not accept any government which will not represent Shi'a scholars and their representatives.

The mood here is quite peaceful, but at the same time these people say they will continue these kinds of protests, these kind of marches. And at the same time, one of the sheikhs said now they don't want to negotiate with the Americans. Even if they would be invited, they would boycott these meetings.

Question: It appears as if there is a contradiction at work here. They say they wanted to be invited to take part in today's talks, but if they had, they would have boycotted them anyway.

Eshanova: They feel very angry that they're not invited. But at the same time, yes, there is a contradiction. They said they will not negotiate with Americans. They will not participate in this meeting because from the beginning they were excluded. Yes, there is confusion and, yes, there are contradictory statements.

As I understand it, on 30 April, Shi'a scholars will hold their own meeting behind closed doors to discuss the situation, to discuss how to deal with the current American administration here in Baghdad and how to make their representatives participate in transitional government and in these negotiations to form a transitional government. So I think more clarity will come after [that] meeting.

Question: What else are they upset about?

Eshanova: They are protesting here because they are not invited. That's why these billboards say, 'Where Are Our Representatives In This Conference?' This is the first reason why they're protesting today.

But second is that they want the Americans to leave the country as soon as possible and to let this process be handled by the Iraqi parties and Iraqi groups. And they believe they represent the majority of Iraq, which are Shi'a, and they believe they should be the ones who will have a voice in this process.

Question: How representative are the beliefs of the Shi'ite protesters?

Eshanova: There is a clear division between the Sunni and the Shi'a imams here. Right now, a Sunni imam, his name is Abu Mansur al-Tikriti, is holding a press conference. He said that these [protesters] are not representative of all Muslims in Iraq, and that what they're saying doesn't represent everybody's opinions here in Iraq. He said they want to negotiate with Mr. Garner and his administration and they want to talk to them and they want to take part in this conference and in these negotiations.

The only thing which they agree with the Shi'ite groups is that the Americans should leave as soon as possible when the Iraqis themselves will be able to control the situation and to rule the country in cooperation.