- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

BAGHDAD — Despite the steady clang of mortar shells outside and persistent violence in the country, many delegates at the opening yesterday of Iraq’s national conference held out hope that the fragile taste of democracy would succeed.

“So far, so good,” said delegate Saad Qindeel, from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s largest religious group. “It’s important that this conference succeeds, and it has many obstacles before it.”

The three-day conference is an unprecedented forum for Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups to discuss their visions for the future of this country.

The 1,300 religious, political and civic leaders will help elect a 100-member national council to act as a watchdog over the interim government ahead of elections scheduled for January.

“This conference is not the end of the road for us; it is the first step … to open up horizons of dialogue,” Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said in his opening speech. “Your blessed gathering here is a challenge to the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country.”

One conflict that threatened to overshadow the conference was the fighting in Najaf, where dissident Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers have battled U.S. and Iraqi troops since Aug. 5.

Nadim al-Jadari of the Shi’ite Political Council sprang onto the stage after the opening speeches in Baghdad and threatened to withdraw unless negotiations to end the fighting in Najaf resumed.

“The Iraqi government bears the responsibility for what is going on in Najaf. It has brought U.S. forces to hit our people in Najaf,” said Falah Hassan, another group official. “Our demand is to halt the military operations in Najaf and other parts of Iraq. We will withdraw from the conference within 24 hours if our demands are not met.”

But other delegates dismissed the notion of abandoning the conference.

“I think it’s irresponsible to boycott,” Mr. Qindeel said. “If we disagree about something, the right thing to do is to work on it, not walk out.”

A walkout by even a small fraction of the delegates would be a symbolic blow to the government as it tries to project a carefully crafted message of inclusion to Iraqis of different ethnic and religious groups.

Organizers worked quickly to assuage complaints by forming a new working committee to find a peaceful solution in Najaf. Other committees formed yesterday were scheduled to produce papers on economics and human rights.

While mortars thudded outside the heavily guarded conference hall, delegates on the inside hunched over containers of kebabs and salad, drinking tea and talking.

Clerics in robes and turbans swished past men in suits while women both scarved and suited chatted into cell phones. A condition for the conference was that women make up at least 25 percent of those attending.

In January, Iraq will elect a transitional government, which will convene a national convention to draft a constitution to be put to the voters in October 2005. Iraqis then will hold another vote in December 2005 for a constitutionally based government.

Mr. Qindeel said the conference needed to send a strong message that political dialogue, not violence, was the only way Iraq could overcome its problems.

“The logic of bullets, of force, of military operations, has no place in our society to settle political differences,” he said. “I sincerely hope this will change. It’s been a long time coming.”

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