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Iraq: Various Groups Jockey For Position Ahead Of National Conference

In a month's time, the various factions and groups competing to lead the new Iraq will meet to establish a transitional government. RFE/RL talks to representatives of several Iraqi political and religious groups to see how they are approaching the upcoming conference.

Baghdad, 1 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Negotiations and heated debate over who should attend an upcoming national conference -- and what parties should be given seats in any Iraqi interim government -- are well under way in Baghdad.

Former opposition leaders are now holding numerous meetings with U.S. officials as well as with each other to create a clear path to the conference, to be held in a month's time.

But the task is not an easy one, given conflicting ideas about how quickly an interim government should be formed and who should take part. One challenge facing all the participants is not to waste time in endless debate while the needs of ordinary Iraqis are not being met.

Colonel Ahmad Ali al-Kafage is a member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iran-based Shi'ite Muslim exile group. He was one of the participants at a preparatory meeting held on 28 April in Baghdad. He said any delay in forming a transitional government carries dangerous consequences. "This is good. But time is not on our side. The country is facing destruction and collapse," he said.

Al-Kafage said many basic issues were already settled at a meeting in London last December attended by 300 delegates from 50 exile groups, including the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the SCIRI, and the Constitutional Monarchy movement. He said this committee should deal with the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Ali Abdul Ameer, a spokesperson for the Iraqi National Accord, a London-based exile party, said that to include more political, religious, and tribal leaders into the process could make the future government more stable. But he warned that the only way to bridge the gap between the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the needs of Iraqi people is to quickly form a transitional government, which should immediately start the task of reconstruction.

"Now, the whole of the Iraqi people are asking for this, and they say: 'It's a delayed step. We want a government in one way or another because many essential things of our life now out of work because of that delay,'" he said.

While these groups are warning U.S. officials against the consequences of any delay, some groups who had opposed the regime from within but did not attend the London meeting are calling on the Americans not to exclude them.

The Society of Honorable Scholars of Al-Najaf, an underground Shi'ite organization long persecuted by the former Iraqi regime, organized a protest demonstration on 28 April to put pressure on the U.S. administration and rival Iraqi groups.

Shaykh Abd-Jabbur Manhel, one of the organizers of this protest and head of the Baghdad office of the society, said his group and its followers will not recognize any interim government that does not include their representatives. "Certainly not. To practice the real process of democracy they have to allow us to participate. [We] will not recognize any government [that excludes us]. We will protest, of course, through peaceful demonstrations. So this is unfair to exclude us, this is our government [in which] to participate [in]," he said.

While Manhel said they are ready for constructive talks with the Americans and other Iraqi parties, some groups -- such as the Iraqi Communist Party -- oppose any direct or indirect U.S. involvement in forming an interim government.

Haydar Shaykh Ali, a member of the politburo of the Iraqi Communist Party, said he believes U.S. officials are actively pushing their own interests. Ali said the party may boycott the Iraqi National Conference. "We don't want Americans to interfere into the working details of opposition parties. Americans should leave Iraqi opposition parties to form Iraq," Ali said.

Other groups say that they have no choice but to work together with the Americans for the time being and to pay this price for Iraqi liberation. But they say as soon as the transitional government is able to control the situation, they will ask the Americans to leave.