Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqis scramble to pick leaders for conference

AP , Baghdad

Hundreds of Iraqis gathered at an elegant Baghdad country club to choose delegates for a national conference that is considered a key step toward democracy.

The assembly is beset with difficulties even before it begins. Leaders in some provinces are so divided they may not be able to agree on any delegates. Some key factions have said they will boycott the event. And organizers are so concerned about attacks they won't even say when or where the conference will be held.

"It isn't the easiest thing trying to get this done, but it will all work out. The security, the organization, everything is moving," said Abdul Halim al-Ruhaimi, a conference organizer. "We're trying to move on to democracy after all this time."

The conference was stipulated by a law enacted by the departing US civil administration last month. Made up of delegates from Iraq's 18 provinces as well as tribal, religious and political leaders, the gathering will choose 80 of its delegates to join a 100-member national assembly. The remaining members will come from the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council.

The assembly will have the power to approve the national budget, veto executive orders with a two-thirds majority and appoint replacements to the Cabinet in the event a minister dies or resigns.

Conference organizers have spent weeks traveling the country to help provinces choose delegates, but some local officials have been unable to agree on who to send.

In Kirkuk, squabbling has erupted over the ratio of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen in that city's delegation. Council members and community leaders have been meeting to resolve the problem. Bickering has also marred selections in Kut and Basra, where British diplomats have stepped in to help resolve the crisis.

Several constituencies have announced boycotts of the gathering.

Members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, which has strong grassroots support among the nation's majority Shiite community, have called the conference undemocratic and refused to attend.

"We originally supported the idea, and agreed to take part because we know in the rest of the world such an assembly would be considered the nation's parliament," said Ali al-Yasseri, an al-Sadr spokesman and managing editor of Al-Hawza newspaper.

"But this assembly will have no legislative authority. ... This body will have no powers. We see this as a trick on the Iraqi people. It's a sad joke," he said.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group with links to insurgents, also will stay home, citing the interim government's reliance on the US-led occupation coalition.

"We decided not to take part in any political organization as long as the occupation exists in Iraq," said Sheik Harith al-Dhari, secretary-general of the group.

The violence plaguing the country has also been a major concern guiding the planning for the conference, an almost irresistible target for terror groups; organizers will only announce the location and date of the three-day conference 24 hours before it begins.

"It's top secret because of the security situation," al-Ruhaimi said. "We expect things like cars rigged with explosives, some sort of attack, anything to stop this from going ahead."

Organizers also will deal with security threats from the delegates.

"I can imagine some Shiite getting annoyed with a Kurd, or a Sunni fighting with a Shiite, or whatever; we just have to make sure they're all cleared of weapons before they go in," al-Ruhaimi said.

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