Iraqis Protest at Baghdad Talks


By George Wright

April 28, 2003

Street protests by thousands of Iraqis and a boycott by leading Shia Muslims today marred US-sponsored talks on the formation of a new government in Baghdad.

British and American politicians hoped the "all faction" meeting - involving 250 prominent Iraqis from across the political spectrum - would be more positive than the first, much smaller summit that took place in Nassiriya on April 15.

Retired US general Jay Garner, who is responsible for the country's post-war reconstruction, opened the meeting - on Saddam Hussein's 66th birthday - by telling the participants that they bore a heavy responsibility in launching a new era for Iraq. "Today, on the birthday of Saddam Hussein, let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq," he said.

Mr Garner, who yesterday assured Iraqis that US forces would leave their country as soon as possible, plans to oversee the immediate reconstruction of Iraq and then hand over to an interim government before a democratic election. He hopes the process of forming a government will start by next weekend.

Today's delegates included clerics from the Shia majority and the traditionally dominant Sunni Muslims, as well as Kurds from the northern mountains. But the main Shia group - the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - turned down its invitation in protest at US involvement in the formation of a new government.

SCIRI's London representative, Hamid al-Bayati, said its central committee and general assembly refused to attend because they disapproved of US interference in Iraqi politics. But the group sent affiliated "engineers and technocrats" to discuss humanitarian issues. Its concerns were amplified outside the venue, a heavily guarded convention centre in Baghdad, as protesters, mostly Shia Muslims, staged the latest in a series of rallies held since US troops arrived in Baghdad on April 9. They claimed that Shia leaders from the holy city of Najaf were not adequately represented at the talks.

Some 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 on Sunday.

Despite the dissenting voices, British foreign office minister Mike O'Brien, who is representing the UK at the talks, expressed hope that the meeting would "bring together an even broader range of Iraqi participants than at Nassiriya, including opposition exile groups and those newly liberated". He said the transitional authority should have only a limited existence and that Iraqis should vote in a referendum on a new constitution before electing their own government.

"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 told reporters outside the meeting.

In London the prime minister, Tony Blair, said there was no doubt Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and predicted that evidence would emerge linking the former Iraqi leader to terrorist groups. Speaking at his monthly news conference, Mr Blair told reporters that coalition forces had identified around 1,000 Iraqi sites they wished to search for banned weapons, but said rebuilding the country was a bigger priority than finding illegal arms.

Meanwhile, as the mystery over Saddam Hussein's fate deepened, Iraq's former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, was reported to have told US interrogators that Saddam survived two air strikes. Mr Aziz, who is being questioned at an undisclosed location, said he saw Saddam alive after the March 19 and April 7 air strikes on Baghdad which targeted the former Iraqi leader and his two sons, according to a report in USA Today that cited a senior US defence official.

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