- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

BAGHDAD Nearly 300 prominent members of Iraq's diverse political and ethnic groups agreed at a U.S.-sponsored meeting yesterday to hold a national conference within four weeks to choose an interim government.
The raucous, daylong meeting of resident and exiled Iraqis settled few of the nettlesome questions about a transitional administration, but participants seemed to revel in their new freedom to disagree.
The discussions were even sweeter, some said, because yesterday was Saddam Hussein's 66th birthday a day that was once a national holiday that passed in relative quiet here.
"Today, on the birthday of Saddam Hussein, let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq," said Jay Garner, the retired U.S. general who is leading the Pentagon's reconstruction effort, at the start of the event.
Saddam, who has not been seen since the fall of Baghdad two weeks ago, remained a hovering presence at the gathering.
A senior U.S. official said yesterday that former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told interrogators he saw Saddam alive after the April 7 air strike targeting the ousted dictator.
A senior official said many of the things Mr. Aziz has told coalition interrogators are suspect, but his statement on Saddam may be true.
"Most of the other things he told us don't seem to be true," the official said, including Mr. Aziz's denial that the regime had weapons of mass destruction.
"But there was less reason to deceive on this issue," the official said. "It's hard to see why he would make it up."
At the conference, meanwhile, Mr. Garner stressed the need for law and order qualities demanded by exhausted Iraqis as well as the delegates.
"Before we begin the reconstruction successfully, we have to have security," he said.
British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien, who attended the 10-hour meeting, said: "We are moving the process of forming an interim administration forward, and [the Iraqis] have intimated that they want to move it along quickly. I believe that the process will deliver a result."
President Bush, speaking yesterday to a large group of Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Mich., said, "America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture [on Iraq], yet we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected."
Participants at the Baghdad conference agreed the new Iraq should be democratic and stable but beyond that, the ideas were as varied as the silk suits, robes and headscarves mixing in the heavily guarded conference center.
Some said a secular government was the only option, while others said they assumed Islam would be the official religion and the basis for legal codes and human rights legislation.
"No one mentioned religion today, but people take for granted that Islam will be the religion of the state," said Ali al-Hassani, director of the Basra Society for Development, a social development organization. "A number of delegates feel more comfortable with Islamic law."
Exiles, who appeared to make up about one-third of the conference, generally appeared to favor a Western-style democracy with concepts and instruments that closely mirror the United States and many European governments.
Hatem Mohklas, chief executive of the U.S.-founded Iraqi National Movement, said he favored a democracy in which all citizens are equal, the army is used only for self-defense, and the constitution includes no religious component.
"This is Iraqism," said the upstate New York resident after yesterday's meeting. "All decisions by the government should benefit Iraqis first."
Those at the conference who had remained in Iraq under the rule of Saddam and his Ba'ath Party were more cautious and more receptive to an explicit role for religion. These leaders also appeared less comfortable with U.S. troops and advisers in the country, and urged Washington to withdraw as quickly as possible.
Nasir Chadirji, whose father founded a democratic political party when Iraq was still a monarchy, said yesterday he prefers a secular government. But he also stressed that the Americans should leave as quickly as possible.
"They don't have a role to propose the new government," he told reporters yesterday.
"It was a good mind-melding of people who have had the opportunity to think about these things, but not in Iraq, and [with] the people inside Iraq," said a senior official with Mr. Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA.
ORHA will convene another group in about four weeks, organizers said, noting it would not necessarily be attended by the same people.
Coalition officials and ORHA representatives could not say how yesterday's crop of delegates were selected, only that they were trying to be representative of the country's ethnic, tribal and religious mix.
Participants included Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Chaldeans, Turkomans, tribal and clerical leaders, Baghdad intellectuals and several exile groups, a senior ORHA official said last night.
But furious demonstrations were touched off in Baghdad and other cities over the relative marginalization of many Shi'ite groups, some of which are openly tied to Iran. A Baghdad demonstration was well organized and attracted a large crowd.
The conference was delayed by two hours after many delegates could not penetrate the security checkpoints and were forced to drive through downtown Baghdad, searching for the appropriate entrance.
"The fact that people could stand up for the first time in their lives and express themselves was a very positive thing," said retired Gen. Buck Walters, the chief administrator of ORHA's southern region.
"In the end there will be a constitutional document, there will be a broadly representative group selected to run this administration."

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