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America’s plans face early test in Nasiriyah

Nasiriyah, April 14 (Reuters): Plans for a US-led administration of post-war Iraq face an early test tomorrow when US officials and divided and distrustful Iraqi factions meet in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Many Iraqis regard the meeting with scepticism, but say any government is better than the anarchy and lawlessness that has swept much of the country since Saddam Hussein was toppled.

The meeting will be overseen by Jay Garner, a no-nonsense retired US general who received plaudits for running Operation Provide Comfort, the mission to assist Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

“Nassiriya will be the first meeting of the Iraqis and is a test case,” said Nathan Jones, spokesman for Garner’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), the body charged with running Iraq immediately after the war.

“We’re using the big-tent theory — we want to bring in as many people as possible, to get a broad spectrum of Iraqis together and see what we can do.”

Another senior US government official said the plan was to hold several more regional meetings leading up to a larger national meeting at which an interim administration would be set up, hopefully within weeks.

“We’re talking about weeks and not a lot longer,” he said.

Around 60 Iraqis are expected to attend, including radical and mainstream Shias and Sunni groups, Kurds and the former monarchy, overthrown in 1958.

While the talks may have the feel of another Loya Jirga, the days-long tribal meeting which helped shape post-war Afghanistan, there are already signs of deep division among Iraq’s diverse factions and doubts over whether many will attend.

Some do not want to be seen to be at the beck and call of the Americans. Others plan to send low-level representatives to test the waters before committing their leaders.

“As long as the fundamental issues have not been addressed and the will of the Iraqi people has not been taken into account, we can’t hope for much from this meeting,” Mohsen Hakim, spokesman for the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said from Tehran.

“For whatever reason, the US does not want to see the Iraqi Opposition seize power in Iraq. But if the Opposition had been given a role from the beginning, we would not have witnessed this chaos and looting,” he said.

Ahmad Chalabi, one of the most high-profile Iraqi exile leaders and a Pentagon favourite, has said he will send a representative. The US has said the UN, which is to send observers to the meeting, would play some sort of role in the process as an interim authority is set up.

Many ordinary Iraqis regard the factions attending the meeting with suspicion. “Each group represents themselves. They have no power,” said Sami al-Aqabi, 47, a Baghdad engineer and businessman. He had little faith in Chalabi.“He was 30 years out of Iraq. Definitely he doesn’t know what's going on,” he said.

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