July 30, 2004
By Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
Iraq's fledgling political process hit another crisis yesterday when officials bowed to pressure from the UN and agreed to delay a political conference due to begin this weekend. The decision came just hours after a mainstream Sunni political party became the latest to withdraw from the conference, saying its candidates had faced death threats and alleging fraud and intimidation.
Just three days ago Fouad Masum, the Kurdish politician organising the meeting, brushed off the problems and insisted it would begin on schedule tomorrow. Yesterday he admitted those problems had grown too serious. "Bearing in mind the credibility of the government, the UN has asked us to postpone the conference for two weeks to continue negotiations with different sectors of Iraqi society," he said. The conference has been rescheduled for August 15. "We are determined this conference should represent the Iraqi people," Mr Masum added.
General elections are scheduled to take place next January, but that date now looks uncertain. The national conference was proposed by the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, in May as an attempt to tame the insurgency that has gripped postwar Iraq. A gathering of 1,000 Iraqis from across the political spectrum was to meet in Baghdad for three days to select a 100-member council. The council is to work alongside the new government to give it more legitimacy and, with a two-thirds majority, will have the power to overrule government decisions.
But few opponents of America's occupation have been prepared to take part in the process. Among those boycotting the meeting were extremists from the Shia and Sunni movements and even secular Arab nationalists. The withdrawal yesterday of the Iraqi Islamic party, which had supported the occupation and has a cabinet minister in the new government, was the most serious blow to the meeting's credibility.
Half of those chosen for the conference were to be selected in the provinces but in many areas the selection process broke down into violent disputes. The Iraqi Islamic party said its candidates in Basra had been physically threatened by others at a selection meeting. Abdul Mohsin Hamid, the head of the Islamic party, said there had been fraud and intimidation in other parts of the south including Nassiriya, Diyala and Najaf. "It proved to us there was interference in the process," he said. "By withdrawing our candidates we send a message to the Iraqi people to pay attention to this violence which is so dangerous for our future."
In Kirkuk, a northern town divided between Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans, the selection process fell into such acrimony it had to be cancelled. In the end only eight of Iraq's 18 provinces managed to select candidates.
Pressure to delay the meeting had come directly from the UN in New York, sources said. "We think dialogue should continue with some parties," said Jamal Benomar, a UN representative in Baghdad. "It is a first historic moment for the Iraqis to meet with this political and religious diversity under this big tent." But it is not clear what more can be achieved in the next two weeks. Mr Benomar arrived in Iraq only last week and has only one assistant with him.
Many Iraqi political figures involved in the conference were clearly angered by the decision to delay it. "We are ready to do everything but the UN pushed us to change the date," said Sadeq al-Moussawi, a member of the monarchy party. "We are not happy with this pressure at all." Salam al-Smaisim of the Shia party the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said: "There are some people whose main ambition was to postpone these things from the beginning."
Most notable among those who have so far refused to take part are Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who led uprisings across the south in April, and Muthanna al-Dhari, a hardline Sunni cleric who heads the Islamic Clerics Association.
Tackling Iraq's security crisis remains the priority for those in the political process.
Yesterday Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, pressed Arab countries to help and welcomed a Saudi initiative to send an Arab peacekeeping force to Iraq.
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