BAGHDAD–April 28 (Reuters)–About 250 leading Iraqis from across the political and ethnic spectrum held a US-sponsored meeting on Monday to launch a new democratic era after the end of Saddam Hussein’s iron rule.
Behind a defensive ring of American tanks–US reconstruction chief Jay Garner opened the Baghdad meeting on Saddam’s 66th birthday–until this year a public holiday– telling participants they bore a heavy responsibility to transform their war-ravaged country.
"Today on the birthday of Saddam Hussein let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq,” Garner said. "It is very humbling for me to be here before you because the blood in your veins… gave force to civilization.”
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–who ran the three-week Iraq war–said the departure of Saddam meant that Washington could cut the size of its permanent military deployment in the region.
"Iraq was a threat in the region. And because that threat will be gone–we also have the ability to adjust some of our arrangemen’s,” he told reporters traveling with him on a tour of Gulf states and Afghanistan.
In a speech to US troops in Qatar–military headquarters for the war–Rumsfeld congratulated his top field commanders and mocked those who had criticized strategy in the early stages of the invasion.
"There were a lot of hand-wringers around–weren’t there?” he said. "Never have so many been so wrong about so much.”
Despite the quick removal of Saddam–US troops have failed to find chemical or biological weapons–Washington’s main rationale for the invasion–and they are facing growing deman’s to quit the country and make way for Iraqi rule.
In London–British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the diplomatic rifts that preceded the war appeared to have opened a dangerous split in the industrialized world and he called for "honest discussion” of the issue.
"My fear is if we don’t deal with the world on the basis of a partnership between Europe and America–then we will in a sense put back into the world the divisions that we wanted to get rid of when the Cold War finished,” he told reporters.
"I think that would be just a disaster for the world,” said Blair–who was US President George W. Bush’s chief war ally. France–Russia and Germany led opposition to the invasion–straining their relations with the United States.
SADDAM’S FATE A MYSTERY
The fate of Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay remains a mystery–but former deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz–who surrendered to US forces last week–was reported to have told his interrogators the former Iraqi leader had survived two airstrikes aimed at killing him.
But the report in USA Today also quoted a senior US defense official as saying Aziz was known to be lying about some issues.
A senior US military commander–Major General Buford Blount–told Reuters the Americans were following up leads in the hunt for Saddam and his sons.
Delegates at the Baghdad meeting told Garner–who promised Iraq on Sunday that US forces would leave as quickly as possible–that they were grateful to Washington for removing Saddam but now wanted to run their own affairs.
Those attending included clerics from the Shi’ite majority and from the traditionally dominant Sunni Muslims–as well as Kurds from the northern mountains. Arab tribal chiefs in robes and headdresses mingled with urban professionals in Western-style suits.
Delegates said splits emerged between returned Iraqi exiles and those who had lived through the Saddam years.
Most former exiles wanted a lesser US role–arguing that only Iraqis should rule the country–while those who had remained at home said they wanted more US supervision because they did not trust the exiles.
Britain was represented at the meeting by Foreign Office Minister Mike O’Brien–who told reporters he envisaged a process that would include a referendum on a new constitution.
This idea was welcomed in Tehran by a senior official of the main group representing Iraq’s majority Shi’ites–the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
SCIRI sent representatives to the meeting after boycotting a similar but much smaller gathering in the southern city of Nassiriya on April 15.
Ahmad Chalabi–leader of the pro-American Iraqi National Congress umbrella group–failed to show up for the Baghdad talks although other INC members attended.
Several hundred demonstrators staged a rally in the capital to protest that Shi’ite leaders from the holy city of Najaf were not adequately represented at the talks.
NO QUICK FREEDOM FOR "MAYOR”
A few of the demonstrators carried banners in support of Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi–the former exile who declared himself mayor of Baghdad but was arrested by US forces on Sunday.
Blount on Monday ruled out releasing Zubaidi quickly. "He’s a criminal. He’s broken multiple laws–from theft to intimidation.”
A US statement said Zubaidi had been detained because of "subversive” activities that included telling people they could not return to work without his approval.
Rumsfeld–on the second day of a Gulf tour–told US troops in Qatar that the war provided rich lessons for military historians. "They will examine the unprecedented combination of power–precision–speed–flexibility–and I would add also compassion–that was employed,” he said.
Garner plans to oversee the immediate reconstruction of Iraq then hand over to an interim government before a democratic election. He hopes the process of forming a government will start by the weekend.