Washington, April 11 (Reuters): The US said today it would convene a meeting of Iraqis in the southern city of An Nasiriyah on Tuesday to discuss the future of Iraq and an eventual interim authority to govern the country.
“It will take place in Nasiriyah next Tuesday, the 15th,” state department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
“We expect this to be the first in a series of regional meetings that will provide a forum for Iraqis to discuss their vision of the future and their ideas regarding the Iraqi interim authority,” Boucher added.
“We hope these meetings will culminate in a nationwide conference that can be held in Baghdad in order to form the Iraqi interim authority.”
Boucher said participants, invited by Gen. Tommy Franks — the US officer in charge of the war on Iraq — would include “Iraqis from newly freed areas” of the country, members of the Iraqi opposition and Iraqis who took part in a long-running state department project on the post-war future of Iraq.
The spokesman said White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad would lead the US delegation to the meeting.
Earlier, Captain Frank Thorp, a spokesman at the Central Command’s war headquarters in Qatar, said: “The majority of the people attending will be from inside Iraq and there will also be attendees from outside Iraq returning to their country.”
He could not confirm if the Iraqi National Congress’ (INC) Ahmad Chalabi would attend.
“This will allow initial discussions on the principles on which the future Iraqi self-governing system could be based,” Thorp said, adding that Khalilzad would chair the gathering.
An Iraqi lawyer who works closely with the INC said he had received an invitation to a meeting in Nasiriyah on Tuesday and was considering whether to accept.
Asked why he had not accepted immediately, he said he would not be keen to attend if there was what he called an excessive emphasis by the organisers on the involvement of tribal leaders.
The British army appointed a tribal leader last week as the head of a fledgling civilian administration in and around the southern city of Basra, the country’s second city.
In Washington, the US defence department defended Chalabi’s credibility yesterday but said it did not intend to “anoint” him as the leader of Iraq.
Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of Chalabi’s allies in Washington, said he had unilaterally drawn a crowd of 10,000 to a rally in Nasiriyah and had a calming influence on the local population there.
But Wolfowitz said: “You can’t talk about democracy and then go around and say we are going to pick the leaders. We are not singling him out and we are a little puzzled at press commentary that suggests that we are singling him out.”