From combined dispatches
BAGHDAD — In a sign of an emerging rift between Iraq’s occupation authorities and its main political groups, the leading opposition coalition yesterday denounced plans by the Americans to delay a national conference aimed at electing a new government.
Also yesterday, Muslim clerics led thousands of protesters through Baghdad’s streets, telling U.S. and British forces to withdraw or face violence.
In a shift in political plans, officials from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority said Sunday that they plan to create an advisory group of 25 to 30 prominent Iraqi political figures to assist the administrators, who would make executive decisions.
Originally, plans discussed with the U.S. administration had called for the convening of a national conference of about 300 participants to draft a new constitution and elect an interim government.
But after the arrival last month of L. Paul Bremer, the new chief of the occupation authority, the administration backtracked from the original plan. Mr. Bremer announced that the conference, scheduled for early June, probably would not be convened until mid-July.
The suspension of those plans, leaving Iraq under occupation rule indefinitely, has angered the country’s political leaders.
“We believe the [postponement] is a regression from previous promises and deals made with the Iraqi opposition regarding the establishment of an interim Iraqi authority,” said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, which had been a London-based exile organization until April.
“We have continuously in the past emphasized there should be no breach and no break in Iraqi sovereignty,” he said.
The so-called Leadership Council — a group of Iraqi political leaders considered the likely core of a new government — had decided Monday to press ahead and convene a meeting of the national assembly, Mr. Qanbar said.
“Yesterday, at the leadership meeting, it was re-emphasized that the conference will go on,” he told reporters at the INC’s headquarters in Baghdad.
“The Leadership Council is unified around it,” he said. “The national conference is an Iraqi-led effort. This is not an American issue.”
The Leadership Council unites seven major Iraqi opposition groups — including two Kurdish parties and the Shi’ite Muslim Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. It has cooperated closely with Mr. Bremer and his predecessor, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, in efforts to set up a broad-based meeting of all Iraqi political, ethnic and religious factions.
Coalition officials, meanwhile, met Sergio Vieira de Mello, the new representative of the United Nations to Iraq, yesterday. He arrived in Baghdad on Monday.
“We share the same goals: to empower the free people of Iraq as soon as possible,” Mr. Vieira de Mello said after a meeting with Mr. Bremer and Britain’s John Sawers.
Mr. Vieira de Mello, who will be in Iraq for four months, said the extent of the U.N. mandate in the country is still in flux.