Talks on Iraq’s Future Begin Amid Iraqi Protests

TALLIL AIRBASE (Reuters)–The United States and Britain began talks with Iraqi factions on reshaping Iraq on Tuesday–urging them to put aside their differences and assuring them they will be allowed to govern their own country.

The religious and political leaders–who met at a makeshift US air base beside the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur in southern Iraq–agreed to convene again in 10 days after a session that raised as many questions as answers.

Jay Garner–the retired US general leading the effort to rebuild Iraq–opened the conference saying "a free Iraq and a democratic Iraq will begin today.”

But events surrounding the meeting–which was boycotted by a major Iran-based Shi’ite Muslim group–served notice that ruling postwar Iraq could make the 26-day war that ousted Saddam Hussein look easy.

Ahmad Chalabi–the high-profile Iraqi businessman favored by the Pentagon for a role in Iraq–did not attend in person–the start of the meeting was delayed for unexplained reasons and demonstrators made clear they were no keener to be ruled by the United States than by Saddam.

In Baghdad and other Iraqi cities–US-led troops worked alongside local police to try to restore order on the streets after Saddam’s final stronghold–his hometown of Tikrit–fell to US forces on Monday without the bloody fight many expected.

But the troops remained wary of possible attacks by diehard Saddam loyalists and anti-American foreign volunteers.

The talks near Ur–375 km (235 miles) south of Baghdad–aimed to shape a postwar Iraq but highlighted divisions among Iraqi opposition groups–united mainly by a desire not to look like US stooges.

US President George W. Bush’s special envoy on the region Zalmay Khalilzad said the United States had no intention of ruling Iraq.

"We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values…I urge you to take this opportunity to co-operate with each other,” he said. Thousands of Iraqis Protest

Even before the talks had formally started at an air base near Nassiriya in southern Iraq–thousands of Iraqis protested in the city streets–saying they wanted to rule themselves and chanting: "No to America–No to Saddam.”

About 80 Iraqis–from radical and mainstream Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim–Kurdish and monarchist groups–attended. But many were irked by Washington’s choice of Garner to head an interim postwar administration.

Garner’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) says it wants to hand over to an Iraqi government after a matter of months–but the US military authority in the country looks set to stay longer.

Iraq’s conquerors are faced with installing a democratic government in an ethnically and religiously divided land that over the past century has known mainly monarchy–military dictatorship and one-party Baathist rule.

But the stakes are high. Devastated by wars and sanctions–Iraq–strategically located between the Arab world–Iran and Turkey–has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves and Western firms are looking hungrily at reconstruction contracts.

BOYCOTT BY SHI’ITE GROUP

Participants in the meeting were flown to the air base and met–several hours behind schedule–in a big white marquee pitched next to a stepped ziggurat temple.

Chalabi sent a representative instead of attending himself. Iraq’s main Shi’ite Muslim opposition group boycotted the meeting altogether.

"We cannot be part of a process which is under an American general,” said a spokesman for the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

A spokesman for Chalabi told BBC radio that Tuesday’s meeting–being held amid tight media controls imposed by the US military–was just one among several and opposition leaders planned to hold their own gathering in Baghdad soon.

"Iraqis must rule Iraq–we don’t need either an American general or a UN bureaucrat in charge,” said Zaab Sethna.

Garner–who chaired Tuesday’s talks–said he was concerned at the slow start of Iraq’s transition effort.

"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,” Garner–who is based in neighboring Kuwait–told the newspaper USA Today.

The Nassiriya talks took place with the United States insisting that the looting and lawlessness that marked the first days after Saddam’s overthrow on Wednesday were subsiding.

In Baghdad–although electricity was still out–a row of barber-shops lifted their shutters–red double-decker buses started plying routes that were virtually empty a few days ago and several street-side cafes filled up with customers.

NIGHT TIME THREATS

But US troops have begun distributing leaflets in Baghdad urging Iraqis to stay at home at night because of persisting security threats–US officials said on Tuesday.

"During this time–terrorist forces associated with the former regime of Saddam Hussein–as well as various criminal elemen’s–are known to move through the area and engage in hostile acts,” the leaflet says.

Saddam himself has disappeared–as have most of his aides. Only two out of 55 officials on a US "most wanted” list have so far been caught.

Deliveries of humanitarian aid–food–water and medical supplies–have increased as security fears start to ease.

The Rome-based World Food Programme said food shipmen’s into northern Iraq through Turkey would soon be running at 2,000 tons a day. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said trucks carrying 120,000 liters (26,400 gallons) of drinking water were due to cross from Iran into southern Iraq on Tuesday.

Italy–whose government supported the US-led invasion–said it intended to send between 2,500 and 3,000 army and navy troops to Iraq to assist with humanitarian aid and help keep order–but they would not have a combat role.

With the main fighting over in Iraq–and US aircraft carriers in the Gulf starting to leave–Washington has turned up the heat on neighboring Syria–calling it a "rogue nation.”

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Damascus of testing chemical weapons within the last 12 to 15 months and of harboring Saddam’s top associates. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned of possible diplomatic or economic sanctions.

Syria gave no sign of being impressed. A cabinet statement on Tuesday branded the charges as "threats and falsifications,” said they had been made for the benefit of Israel–and demanded an end to the "American-British occupation of Iraq.”

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