By Jamie TarabayAssociated Press
July 25, 2004
Hundreds of Iraqis gathered at an elegant Baghdad country club Sunday to choose delegates for a national conference, considered a key first step in transforming this former dictatorship into a democracy.
The conference, however, is beset with difficulties even before it begins. Leaders in some provinces are so divided they may not be able to agree on any delegates at all. Some key factions have said they will boycott the event. And organizers are so concerned about terror attacks they won't even say when or where the conference will be held. ``It isn't the easiest thing, trying to get this done, but it will all work out. The security, the organization, everything is moving,'' said Abdul Halim al-Ruhaimi, a conference organizer. ``We're trying to move on to democracy after all this time.''
The conference was stipulated by a law enacted by the departing U.S. civil administration last month. Made up of delegates from Iraq's 18 provinces as well as tribal, religious and political leaders, the gathering will choose 80 of its delegates to join a 100-member national assembly. The remaining members will come from the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. The assembly will have the power to approve the national budget, veto executive orders with a two-thirds majority and appoint replacements to the Cabinet in the event a minister dies or resigns.
Conference organizers have spent weeks traveling the country to help the provinces choose their delegates, but some local officials have been unable to agree on who to send. In Kirkuk, squabbling has erupted over the ratio of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen in that northern city's delegation. Council members and community leaders have been meeting for days to resolve the problem. Internal bickering has also marred selections in southern cities of Kut and in Basra, where British diplomats have stepped in to help resolve the crisis.
Several key constituencies also have announced boycotts of the gathering. Members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, which has strong grassroots support among the nation's majority Shiite community, have called the conference undemocratic and refused to attend. ``We originally supported the idea, and agreed to take part because we know in the rest of the world, such an assembly would be considered the nation's parliament,'' said Ali al-Yasseri, an al-Sadr spokesman and managing editor of al-Hawza newspaper. ``But this assembly will have no legislative authority. ... This body will have no powers. We see this as a trick on the Iraqi people. It's a sad joke,'' he said.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group with links to insurgents, also will stay home, citing the interim government's reliance on the U.S.-led coalition. ``We decided not to take part in any political organization as long as the occupation exists in Iraq,'' said Sheik Harith al-Dhari, secretary-general of the group.
The roiling violence plaguing the country has also been a major concern guiding much of the planning for the conference, an almost irresistible target for terror groups; organizers will only announce the location and date of the three-day conference 24 hours before it begins. ``It's top secret because of the security situation,'' al-Ruhaimi said. ``We expect things like cars rigged with explosives, some sort of attack, anything to stop this from going ahead.''
Organizers also will have to deal with a more sensitive security threat - from the delegates themselves. ``I can imagine some Shiite getting annoyed with a Kurd, or a Sunni fighting with a Shiite, or whatever, we just have to make sure they're all cleared of weapons before they go in,'' al-Ruhaimi said. During the meeting Sunday at the Alwayiah Country Club, Iraqi police blocked the nearby roads, emptying one of the main arteries in the center of Baghdad. Authorities, assisted by coalition troops and interior ministry forces, are expected to use even tighter security measures at the conference, al-Ruhaimi said.
Inside the club, many Iraqis were just beginning to discover what a fickle creature democracy can be. The 540 representatives from Baghdad's outlying districts - assigned to choose 26 delegates to the conference - came with concrete ideas of how the process should be conducted. Some voiced disdain, others outrage at the little time they had to prepare. While some districts knew about the elections more than a month ago, some only found out last week. ``We've had over a year to prepare for this,'' said Nasir Medhi, furiously wiping the sweat from his brow, and growing more and more agitated. ``More than a year, and yet we only get a day's notice to pick a group to send here.''
Debate is heated. Votes are coaxed. There's talk of something more than just a little persuasion. The power cut out while organizers counted pink, white and yellow ballot papers. But groups of voters stayed on to watch this first step on the path toward democracy, for which they have such high hopes after decades of dictatorship. ``It has to be a real democracy,'' stressed Abdullah Mansour, sent from Abu Ghraib to vote. ``I know everyone has a different idea of what it should be, but while it needs to be nurtured slowly it also has to be accountable.''
Nodding in agreement, his friend Taha Rashid Ali chimed in. ``It's like a newborn baby, that's how you have to treat it.''
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