Deep divides halt key Iraq meeting

A national conference to choose a de facto parliament is postponed under pressure from the UN and Iraqi groups.

It was intended as a baby step into participatory democracy, the country's first foray into nation-building. But Iraq's national conference was postponed Thursday for the second time amid allegations of mismanagement and botched local caucuses.

Fuad Masoum, the official in charge of arranging the conference, announced that it would be delayed for two weeks. Mr. Masoum, who had earlier decided to go ahead with the conference, had faced relentless pressure from Iraqi leaders and the United Nations to postpone it.

"We told him that the caucuses must be nullified, that they would have to do another round, because no one knew about them," said Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, an independent Shiite political leader. "I am in Baghdad, and my neighbors are university professors, and they didn't hear about [the conference.] So what about the people in the provinces?"

The conference, required by law to take place in July, is now scheduled to start in Baghdad on Aug. 15. Its main purpose is to choose a 100-member council that will serve as the de facto parliament until January elections. Modeled after Afghanistan's loya jirga, the three-day conference was meant to draw in indigenous Iraqi leaders not represented in Iraq's new government.

Instead, it had become an exercise in partisan politics. It has deepened already bitter divisions between ethnic and sectarian groups, especially between exiles and homegrown leaders. Many Iraqis claimed that six political parties, most of them made up of returned exiles, dominated the process and alienated exactly the kind of popular leaders the conference was supposed to attract.

"The parties will eat the entire cake," said Mr. Ghitta. "The parties got what they wanted - they got to control the Governing Council and the National Conference, and they're going to control the new parliament."

The renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr decided to boycott, as did the Association for Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group with influence over anti-American insurgents. UN and Iraqi leaders hope the delay will buy them time to convince both groups to participate.

But it's going to be a hard sell to those who view the process as tainted by US-backed parties. "The conference was not elected and it had a lot to do with the US administration," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University who heads an Arab nationalist group that also decided to boycott. "We want to have a national dialogue, but not under an American umbrella."

Many independent Iraqis feared a reprise of last May, when last-minute maneuvering by political parties crushed UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's popular plan for a "caretaker" government of technocrats and shoehorned in a government of party politicians.

"The political parties had a large number of seats in the National Conference, much larger than their popular base of support," said Sheikh Hussein Ali al-Shaalan, head of the Iraqi National Council of Tribes. "The parties argued they would represent the majority of people in many democratic countries. We argued that Iraq has not had elections yet, so the strength of each political party could be tested on the ground."

The parties' claim to represent popular will, he said, "is just speculation."

The parties are the Iraqi National Accord, whose leader, Iyad Allawi, is the interim prime minister; the Dawa Party, whose leader, Ibrahim Jafari, is one of Iraq's two vice presidents; the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi; the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani; and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani.

The six had seats in the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. When the council dissolved itself June 1, the parties gave themselves seats on the 92-member Preparatory Commission, charged with planning the national conference.

The commission's members automatically get seats in the national conference. But the six parties also gave themselves 72 seats in the conference, leaving only 72 seats for 200-plus other political parties. The remaining seats were set aside for those elected in provincial caucuses, and leaders of tribal, religious, academic, and professional groups.

The lion's share of seats - 548 - was set aside for representatives of Iraq's 18 provinces. But the selection for these delegates, say independent Iraqi leaders, was also dominated by the six parties. "These caucuses in the provinces were illegitimate," said Mr. Ghitta, who is from a prominent Najaf religious family. "No one heard about these caucuses."

In Najaf, few outside the two main Shiite exile parties - SCIRI and Dawa - knew when the caucus was to be held. And in Basra, conflict erupted between Shiite groups when Sadr followers charged that the caucus was being engineered by Dawa and SCIRI members.

The Basra dispute became so charged that the two supervisors canceled it and met Wednesday in Baghdad to handpick the 43 delegates. "I wanted to prevent them from creating a fitna," said Shaalan, one supervisor, using a term for violent religious schism. "There was danger that if it had gone ahead, they would have fought each other."

The conference had been slated to end by July 31. But UN representatives asked officials to delay and win over holdouts. Tuesday, Masoum defied them by announcing it would start Saturday.

Thursday, after more UN pressure, Iraqi president Gazi al-Yawer met with the commission. According to a leader who was present, President Yawer said, "It's not the UN's decision. We think it's an Iraqi decision. But if you decide to go ahead, you have to understand that all the bridges between the UN and the Iraqi government will be burned."

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