July 10, 2004
By Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
Several of the most outspoken Iraqi opponents of the US occupation are refusing to take part in a nationwide congress this month aimed at broadening support for the Iraq government and curbing the insurgency.
The three-day national conference was proposed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy, as an attempt to give legitimacy and credibility to Iraq's new government.
At the end of this month 1,000 Iraqis will gather in Baghdad for a three-day meeting to select a 100-member national council, which will have the power to approve the budget and, by a two-thirds majority, to overrule laws proposed by the Iraqi government.
But in an initial setback, several prominent figures, among them Sunnis, Shias and secularists who all oppose the occupation, have already turned down invitations.
Fouad Masum, 66, a veteran Kurdish politician who is running the conference, said nobody would be banned from taking part: "The conference is not only for those who are supporting America or the government ... This is for all political parties and groups," he told the Guardian.
For months Iraqis questioned the credibility of the now-disbanded governing council, appointed last year by Paul Bremer, the head of the US occupation authorities. This in turn lent weight to the insurgency. The hope is that by including many disparate groups in the conference, it will provide legitimacy and go some way to tackling the violence.
"It will have its own impact on the security situation," Dr Masum said. "We hope for political synchronisation."
A steering committee of around 90 people, including 20 of the former members of the governing council, has been appointed to help choose participants of the congress. Half will be proposed by Iraq's provinces, the rest will include the steering committee and other notable politicians, academics, religious leaders of all faiths, tribal chiefs, artists and scientists - a quarter of the congress and the national council must be women.
A similar "big tent" meeting was proposed in May last year to select the governing council. But the idea was abandoned and the council was handpicked by Mr Bremer, which Dr Masum said had been a "mistake".
The rules have been rewritten to allow former Ba'ath party members to take part in the conference, although any suspected of involvement in killings and human rights abuses will be banned.
Sadiq al-Moussawi, a senior political adviser for the monarchy party and a member of the steering committee, said it was important that Ba'athists be included.
"If the Ba'athists don't come it means the violence will continue," he said. "We don't want this national council to be a copy of the government. This is not Saddam's time."
The rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led uprisings across southern Iraq in April, ignored an invitation to send a representative to the steering committee, and this week dismissed the new government as "illegitimate".
Others who have refused to take part include Qais Jawad al-Asari, an Arab nationalist politician, Wamid Nadmi, a secular Sunni academic and Muthanna al-Dhari, a hardline Sunni cleric who heads the Islamic Clerics Association.
Another who has turned down an offer is the influential Shia cleric Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi, whose grandfather helped lead the revolt against the British occupation in 1920, and who himself had to flee Iraq in 1979 when Saddam Hussein came to power.
The sheikh's brother and adviser, Hadi al-Khalisi, said clerics should play a political role in government, but that his family would not take part in any council or elections until the US forces either leave or set a date for their departure.
"The first thing should be an end to the occupation and then we can think about elections," he said.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004