Iraq Assembly off to a Faltering Start

BAGHDAD – More than 1,300 delegates from across Iraq gathered here Sunday to elect 100 members for the interim consultative assembly, but angry opponents disrupted the opening sessions and accused the government of undemocratic ways.

Instead of debating topics on the agenda, much of the discussions turned into heated debates about fighting in Najaf, where followers of the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have been battling U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

“We are the sons of Najaf and we have done nothing to defend it from the attacks and invasion and occupation of American tanks,” said one man. But a woman shot back: “We are from Najaf. No one is asking us anything. The people who are destroying Najaf are the ones who have entered the Imam Ali shrine and fighting from there. These people are not from Iraq.”

Within minutes of the end of the opening session, sounds of explosions could be heard throughout Baghdad, including several in the vicinity of the conference building. These lasted several hours. At least one person was reported killed near the conference center.

Sadr and his followers were noticeably missing from the conference. Fouad Masoum, the conference organizer, told reporters on Saturday, “We did not want to embarrass him by calling him.”

Haidar Hussein of the Islamic Party said some 20 Islamic-trend members whose groups are associated with Sadr have come to the conference.

At the end of the morning session, many of the delegates shouted at interim President Ghazi Yawar asking him to order an end to fighting in Najaf, which houses the shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holies for Shias.

“Mr. President, it is a principle of democracy that authorities listen to the voice of the others,” a Shia delegate shouted as the president was leaving.

The three-day national conference was called following an agreement between the now-dissolved U.S. authorities and the Iraqi governing council. It was due to be held two weeks ago but was delayed after United Nations officials and many Iraqis said they had not had enough time to pick delegates.

As the meetings began, speaker after speaker said security remained the biggest problem. Many said that government forces must combat terrorism and violence, in a not-so-hidden reference to Sadr and his armed men.

Yawar said at the opening ceremony: “Will alone will not solve our problems. We have to apply all our resources … and shun violence and confiscation of government properties. Anyone who chooses violence is working against the interest of the nation.”

His words came hours after Iraqi officials said different channels to find a negotiated settlement to end the fighting in Najaf had failed.

There were reports that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has ordered the army to squash Sadr’s rebellion. Allawi did not directly address the Sadr issue during his speech at the conference, but acknowledged that security is his government’s biggest challenge.

The conference has been condemned by many who say delegates have not been selected fairly. “We used to have one dictatorship by Saddam. Now we have the dictatorship of the four or five biggest political parties,” said Ahmed Barrak, a moderate Shia and member of the former governing council.

“They have presented lots of names of people [for the consultative assembly] who they say are independent and do not really belong to any political party,” Barrak said. “But in fact they have ties to these parties.” The new government, he said, is stacking the deck in its favor to keep out the opposition.

Of the 100 members that the delegates are due to choose before they adjourn Tuesday, 19 are members of the former governing council who did not receive ministerial positions in the current transitional government. The rest will be chosen by consensus or by voting.

During the three-day conference, delegates can also participate in four committees that will discuss political reform, human rights and justice, security and law, and reconstruction.

Organizers have prepared working papers for each committee, but delegates can present their ideas as well. The full conference will vote on the recommendations of the committees.

The 100-member consultative assembly will have some legislative powers, such as preparing next year’s budget. It will even have veto powers over some decisions made by the cabinet. But it does not have full legislative powers, and its decisions will not be binding on the future parliament whose members will be chosen in direct voting by the people. Those elections are meant to be held by the end of January next year.