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Iraq weighs guided democracy

Tallil airbase, April 15 (Reuters): Iraqi political and religious leaders held first talks on their country’s future with US and British officials today and pledged to work for a democratic, federal Iraq.

The meeting also touched on the sensitive issue of the role of religion in the future state, according to a statement published on the website of the US Central Command war headquarters.

Participants were flown to a makeshift US airbase beside the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur in southern Iraq and they gathered in a carpeted marquee pitched near the famed terraced ziggurat temple erected in 2100 BC.

But in nearby An Nasiriyah, thousands of Iraqis protested that they did not need American help now that Saddam Hussein had gone.

“No to America. No to Saddam,” chanted Iraqis from the Shia Muslim majority oppressed by Saddam, who is of the rival Sunni sect. Arabic TV networks said up to 20,000 people marched.

After a day of delay, the meeting agreed that a future government of Iraq should be organised under a democratic, federal system after consultations across Iraq.

A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which sent a representative to the meeting, said there was no formal vote but the meeting agreed to a 13-point statement by consensus. That statement was published on the Central Command website. “(The meeting) was low level and never intended to produce concrete results,” spokesman Zaab Sethna said.

Around 80 Iraqis — radical and mainstream Shia and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and supporters of the monarchy axed in 1958 — attended the gathering, 375 km southeast of Baghdad.

A leading Iran-based Shia Muslim group stayed away. “We cannot be part of a process which is under an American general,” a spokesman for the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq said.

Sethna predicted they would attend the next meeting.

Those who did attend agreed that the Baath Party of Saddam had to be dissolved.

They voted to hold another meeting in 10 days at a location to be decided, and to invite other Iraqi groups to begin deliberations on setting up an interim authority.

Jay Garner, the former US general leading the drive to rebuild Iraq, opened the conference on his 65th birthday.

“What better birthday can a man have than to begin it not only where civilisation began but where a free Iraq and a democratic Iraq will begin today'” he asked.

But scepticism ran deep among groups united by little more than joy at Saddam’s fall or unease at getting too close to Washington.

INC leader Ahmad Chalabi, eager not to be seen as a stooge of the Americans who back him, opted to stay away and sent a representative instead. One of his aides said the majority of participants agreed with the INC’s vision of Iraq’s future.

Alluding to the protests in Nasiriyah, the aide said: “We know that Iran has sent money and people into the region, into all the major cities in the south, and they are trying to increase and capitalise on anti-American sentiment.”

Garner is to head the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance until Iraqis take over, probably in six months to a year. He will report to General Tommy Franks, who commanded the invasion of Iraq.

In his opening remarks to the meeting, President George W. Bush’s special envoy to the region, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the US 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.

US officials want Iraqis to form their own decision-making structure ahead of eventual elections, but they said today the various leaders would first just get acquainted.

Establishing a stable government is a daunting task. Tribal, ethnic and religious leaders, particularly the majority Shias, have loyal followings.

Stopping the country fragmenting into Kurdish, Shia and Sunni zones will be a tough battle.

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