Words, not bullets

The long-awaited national conference begins in Baghdad despite a dangerous security situation.

Published August 16, 2004 12:06PM (EDT)

A downpour had been expected in Baghdad, and it arrived right on cue.

The predictions had been for mortar bombs, of course, not rain, but the thud of shells exploding so close to Baghdad's convention center caused scarcely a blink among the delegates to the much-anticipated national conference gathered inside.

Some were asked to move away from the windows while it was explained that Saddam Hussein had built the center to withstand direct hits. The delegates knew what to expect and appeared neither shaken nor disturbed.

"I came here from Najaf so my voice could be heard," said one woman, a teacher. "Do you think I'm going to be silenced by a few mortar shells?"

She, like everyone else, had come from across Iraq yesterday, defying the parlous security situation. There were tribal sheikhs from Kirkuk, women's activists from Basra, businessmen from Fallujah and former peshmerga from Kurdistan. There were Muslims, Yezidis, Shabaks, Christians, Turkomen, Kurds and Arabs. There were teachers, judges, doctors and preachers.

It was the first time since the fall of Saddam that Iraq's disparate and often discordant voices could be heard in one place. And for those desperate to see some light at the end of the tunnel it was a long-awaited first step.

Held under the shadow of the insurgency and counterinsurgency, that the conference was taking place at all was seen as a victory.

"Your presence here today is the biggest challenge to the forces of darkness that want to tear this country apart," the prime minister, Iyad Allawi, said in his opening remarks. "This is not the end of the road; it is the first step on the way to democracy."

The task before them is to elect Iraq's first post-Saddam assembly and start a "national dialogue" on the country's most pressing problems. It was words, not bullets, that did the fizzing. A delegate from the province of Anbar in the Sunni triangle called for self-rule for his region. Another from Basra complained about the marginalization of Iraq's second city. A woman from Najaf raged against the occupation of her hometown -- not by U.S. forces but by the black-shirted young men of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army.

From the outset, the violence in the holy city of Najaf threatened to dominate the proceedings. If the Americans or the interim government were expecting a pat on the back for their tough stand, they had to think again.

As the opening session wound up -- after speeches from the Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawar; the prime minister; and the U.N. special representative, Ashraf Qazi -- a group of Shiite delegates standing near the back started to heckle, then to chant.

"Yes, yes Najaf," they shouted, punching the air with clenched fists. "We want the president to hear what we have to say. Unless the bloodshed in Najaf stops, we will withdraw."

Iraq's new political leaders were sanguine. "The point of this conference is to get talking to one another, to get some kind of national dialogue going," said Hamid al-Khifai, the cabinet spokesman.

"Najaf is an emotive issue and it is understandable that it be raised. If you had shouted like that under Saddam you would have been taken out and shot."

The conference organizers decided to deal directly with the issue. They passed a resolution calling on all sides in the conflict to stop the violence, and appointed a negotiating committee to try to find a solution.

Then it was on with other important business: the election of the interim assembly and the creation of four working groups dealing with topics such as security, transitional justice and reconstruction. The delegates will elect 80 of the 100 seats in the assembly, with the remaining 20 going to former members of the governing council.

The assembly, or Iraqi National Council, will have the power to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve Iraq's 2005 budget and appoint a new prime minister or president should either resign or die in office.

There were of course some who stayed away, whether out of pique at not being given the prominence they thought they deserved or because they preferred not to have anything to do with the interim government or its American backers.

Allawi insisted the political process was open to all. But the selection of delegates had been criticized for not being inclusive enough, and organizers were accused of stacking the conference with pro-government delegates.

The most important absence was that of Sadr's movement. Although organizers continued to insist that he or his representatives were welcome, the militant cleric under siege in Najaf shunned the invitation. There was no show either by Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi is wanted on counterfeiting charges.

"This will be no magic wand," said Fouad Massoum, the conference chairman. "We cannot solve all of Iraq's problems in three days, but we have to start somewhere."

By Michael Howard

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