Outside the meeting at Ur
TALIL AIR BASE — About 150 Iraqis hoping to voice their opinions on Iraq's future sought admittance to a small, exclusive meeting of opposition leaders gathered by the US government.
The meeting is the first of many to be held to determine the political future of Iraq. More than 70 delegates attended the meeting, held in the ancient city of Ur, near the Talil Air Base outside Nasiriyah.
The Iraqis were stopped at a military checkpoint, but talked freely with a reporter about their views on what the future may hold for Iraq.
Some stood behind a coil of barbed wire laid across the street. On the other side stood a line of military police with machine guns. Tensions began to rise as the Iraqis - some dressed in suits and ties - started yelling at the MPs. One man had his young children pick up stones to throw, but the crowd shooed him away.
"I would like to present. I would like to say my attitude," said Mohammed Bakoori, an education supervisor in Nasiriyah. Bakoori said those at the conference do not represent many Iraqis. They want to represent themselves.
"We need security first," said Mr. Bakoori. "We need a government under the supervision of [the US and UK] and to achieve democracy and freedom. But limited freedom, because most of our people don't understand freedom today." He says it will take two years before people can handle the "free, free, freedom."
Sami Alobady, an engineer active in an opposition group called the Iraqi Rescue Movement, said that the new leaders "must be from among these people," gesturing around the assembled crowd.
He's skeptical of Ahmed Chalabi, a prominent opposition leader who only recently came out of exile. Chalabi sent a representative to the meeting.
"He left Iraq years ago. He doesn't know now how the Iraqi people think and live. He doesn't know they are hungry and angry," said Mr. Alobady. As for the US troops, Alobady says their stay must be short. "We now need the Americans. But in [the] long term it will be a very big problem [if they stay]."
Many in the crowd came from as far away as Najaf and Basra. A lawyer from Najaf came bearing a list of signatures he said were from hundreds of the city's professionals.
Less well-off locals generally came to vent frustration about the lack of basic services.
"We heard from the radio that Kuwait sent food assistance. But we don't receive any yet. We don't receive any assistance," said Fayed Kadin.
A father came to the barricade carrying his child, who he said has leukemia. He was initially told to take her to the hospital in Nasiriyah, but after he insisted, he was taken on base and given medicine. Soldiers said they are only taking trauma victims.
The situation eased when Free Iraqi Forces, embedded with US Civil Affairs troops, arrived on the scene and talked with members of the crowd.
Col. Christopher Holshek, with the 402nd Civil Affairs squadron, also assuaged the crowd, saying, "I think that your coming here is a very good thing because it shows you care. You are demonstrating your democratic right to be seen and to be heard. And the fact that you are here and doing this peacefully is a demonstration of your commitment to a civil society."
The crowd eventually dispersed.
"People want someone to listen to them," said Col. Holshek. "We brought them some information and we took their information."
Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting from Kuwait and southern Iraq is collected in a web special project available at http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/.