Protests flare ahead of Iraq talks
By Adrian Croft
TALLIL AIRBASE, Iraq (Reuters - 15 April) - The United States launches talks with divided and distrustful Iraqis today on how to rule the country now Saddam Hussein has gone, but anti-U.S. protests erupted even before they began.
As participants gathered at a U.S. air base near the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya, scepticism ran deep among groups united by little other than delight Saddam was finished and unease at being seen as too close to the United States.
Arabic television channels showed thousands of Iraqis protesting in Nassiriya against the talks, saying they wanted to rule themselves and chanting: "No to America, No to Saddam".
In a sign of how hard the process may be, one major exile group stayed away and another sent only minor officials to the talks that failed to start as planned at 10 a.m. (7:00 a.m. British time).
Three hours later, a spokesman for one group told Reuters by telephone that participants were still preparing to meet.
U.S. officials say Iraqis should govern themselves as soon as possible. The aim is to help them generate their own nationwide decision-making structure, but Tuesday's short-term goal was just for the diverse factions to get acquainted.
"A big part of the meeting is getting to know each other, so the meeting starts when they get together," said a U.S. military spokesman.
Officials from the interim U.S.-led administration for Iraq say they hope to do most of their work in three to six months and then hand over to an Iraqi government. However, the U.S. military authority in the country looks set to stay longer.
Ahmad Chalabi, a high-profile leader backed by the Pentagon, was not attending the talks but sent a representative. The main Shi'ite Muslim opposition group decided not to come at all.
"It is not to the benefit of the Iraqi nation," said Abdelaziz Hakim, a leader of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
"From the beginning, independence has been our manifesto. We don't accept a U.S. umbrella or anybody else's."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw put a brave face on the boycott, saying SCIRI were enjoying their new democratic right to choose, and tried to dampen expectations about the meeting.
"It is not a one-off, it's the beginning of a process to restore governance," he told a news conference in the Gulf state of Qatar, home to U.S. Central Command war headquarters.
"This is not an American or British operation but one we have sponsored to get things going," he said, when asked if it would have been better for the United Nations to run the talks.
That question elicited a swipe at U.N. Security Council permanent members France and Russia, who have dashed Anglo-American hopes that once the war was over they might set aside their vocal opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq.
Straw said London and Washington saw a vital role for the United Nations but that Security Council members had to accept the new reality on the ground in Iraq and cooperate.
"It is the responsibility of all members of the Security Council, but particularly those with vetoes, not to play games but to recognise this new reality and to move forward," he said.
The United Nations, promised some sort of role by Washington under pressure from Britain, will attend as an observer.
DANGER OF DELAY
The meeting will be overseen by Jay Garner, the retired U.S. general who will head the interim Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) until Iraqis take over.
"My fear right now is every day we delay we're probably losing some momentum, and there's perhaps some vacuums in there getting filled that we won't want filled," he said.
About 60 Iraqis, representing radical and mainstream Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim groups, Kurds and supporters of the monarchy overthrown in 1958, were expected to attend the meeting 375 km (235 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
If the talks succeed, similar meetings may be held elsewhere in Iraq to draw together as many different voices as possible.
A spokesman for Chalabi told BBC radio leaders of the Iraqi opposition planned to hold their own meeting in Baghdad soon.
"Iraqis must rule Iraq, we don't need either an American general or a U.N. bureaucrat in charge," said Zaab Sethna.
One problem is that Saddam's ruling Baath Party was so pervasive it will prove hard to govern the country without them.
Members of his police are patrolling again in Baghdad, but a British ORHA official said they were only small fry.
"We've been successful in taking the head off the regime, in taking off the top layer," Brigadier General Tim Cross told BBC radio. "Most of the other people who are trying to rebuild their lives will put aside the Baathist regime with great pleasure."