| US reconstruction chief Jay Garner during the meeting with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 28 (Reuters): Iraq’s post-war administrator Jay Garner pledged today to build democracy in the cradle of civilisation, but splits emerged in the ranks of prominent Iraqis over America’s role in an interim government.
Garner told about 250 people at a meeting of leading Iraqis in the bombed-out heart of Baghdad that they must build on a smaller, initial gathering in the city of Nassiriya two weeks ago, days after Saddam was toppled.
“Today on the birthday of Saddam Hussein let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq,” the retired US general told invited delegates at the heavily guarded convention centre. Saddam, whose fate is unknown, would have celebrated his 66th birthday on April 28, a public holiday in pre-war Iraq.
At the latest meeting of Iraq’s potential leaders of the future, clear divisions emerged over Washington’s role in the interim period ahead of planned elections. Many former exiles said Iraqis should rule their country alone and the US should have only a limited role.
Other Iraqis who had not left said they wanted more US supervision because they did not trust those who returned after Saddam’s fall.
“There are differences over the role of the Americans. We here prefer the Americans to rule us in the interim period,” said Suheil al-Suheil, a Baghdad lawyer. “We are not ready to handle this yet. Saddam’s orphans are still alive.”
British foreign office minister Mike O’Brien, also attending the talks, said Iraqis should vote in a referendum on a new constitution before electing their own government to take over from a transitional post-war authority.
Among those at the meeting were clerics from the Shia majority and the traditionally dominant Sunnis, as well as Kurds from the north, Arab tribal chiefs in robes and headdresses and urban professionals in Western-style suits. Britain, the main US ally in the war, was represented at the meeting by foreign office minister Mike O’Brien, who told reporters he envisaged a process that would include a referendum on a new constitution.
US tanks blocked the streets outside and American soldiers patrolled the halls and corridors of the conference centre.
Key players missing
Ahmad Chalabi, the Washington-backed head of the Iraqi National Congress, did not attend although other INC representatives were present.
Representatives of the two main Kurdish political parties also did not attend, but US officials said they were invited and probably only prevented by logistical problems.
A senior official said an important Shia group — the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — that boycotted the first meeting sent delegates this time despite reservations about US influence.
The INC said Chalabi and leaders from SCIRI and the two main Kurdish parties would meet on Wednesday, without Garner.
Garner, meanwhile, appealed to Iraqis’ sense of pride in the land of ancient Mesopotamia, where some of the world’s earliest civilisations once flourished.
“It’s very humbling for me to be here before you because the blood in your veins, in your land, gave force to civilisation,” said Garner, whose comments were later translated into Arabic.
“Society as we knew it began here, in this land.”
Some Iraqi speakers thanked US-led forces, but all agreed the Iraqis must eventually rule their own country alone.
“The Iraqi people owe a lot to the United States and the United Kingdom...for deposing the dictator,” said Sheikh Hussein Sadr, dean of the Islamic Council in London.
“Iraq cannot be ruled except by Iraqis,” he added.
A few of the demonstrators carried banners in support of Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, the former exile who declared himself mayor of Baghdad but was arrested by US forces yesterday.
Garner, who heads the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), hopes the process of forming an interim Iraqi government will start by the end of the week.
O’Brien told reporters outside the meeting the transitional government should have only a limited existence.
“I hope we then move to a constitutional assembly, then a referendum and a new constitution and then a directly and properly elected democratic government of Iraq,” he said.
US and British officials said they would hold a third meeting with prominent Iraqis on the country’s political future in northern Iraq next month.
Delegates said it would most likely be in the city of Mosul in two or three weeks.