Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraq delays vital meeting

AP , BAGHDAD

Iraqi authorities abruptly put off a national conference of political, religious and civic leaders considered a crucial step on the road to democracy amid disarray over choice of delegates and boycott threats by key factions.

The announcement on Thursday came a day after a car bombing killed 70 people, the worst single attack since US officials transferred power to an interim Iraqi government.

The national conference, which had been scheduled to start today, appeared to be far behind schedule even before the two-week delay was announced. No venue had been disclosed and there were no outward signs in Baghdad of preparations for the 1,000-person gathering.

Conference organizers insisted they were ready to start, but agreed to the postponement at the request of UN officials, who wanted time to encourage wider participation and prepare for the meeting.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the decision to postpone the conference, stressing the need to take the time to prepare properly and encourage wider participation.

"The secretary-general believes that a well-prepared national conference can provide a much-needed opportunity for Iraqi political forces and civil society," spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

Officials hope the conference, which is to elect an interim national assembly, will give Iraqis faith in their government and isolate the insurgents who have carried out a 15-month campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings.

One insurgent group linked to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said on Thursday that it had kidnapped a Somali truck driver and would behead him if his Kuwaiti company did not stop working in Iraq.

Another group threatened to behead one of seven foreign truck drivers it was holding in 24 hours if its string of demands, which included a pullout by their company, were not met.

Another militant Islamic group posted an Internet warning that threatened any Muslim or Arab nation that contributed troops to a Saudi-proposed Muslim force for Iraq -- a proposal supported by US officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"Our swords will be drawn in the face of anyone who cooperates with the Jews and the Christians," the group said in a statement posted on Thursday.

"We will strike with an iron fist all the traitors from the Arab governments who cooperate with the Zionists, secretly or openly," it said.

A US soldier was killed on Thursday in clashes north of Baghdad, and a Polish soldier died in a roadside bombing.

The former's death raises the number of US personnel killed in Iraq since the war began to at least 909.

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