First glimpse of Iraq's new power brokers
Iraqi leaders met with US officials Tuesday. It's just the start of a long road.
WASHINGTON AND TALIL AIR BASE, IRAQ
The United States is now attempting the difficult job of rebuilding Iraqi public society before lawlessness and political faction rip it irreparably apart.
The tasks facing retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the nation's temporary overseer, are not the kind of thing one generally encounters in US military service. How should he handle Iraqi exiles, many of whom are eager to help rebuild their country but may command little native support? What should he do with Shiite Muslim groups that are calling for Islamic rule, while spurning US entreaties?
Tuesday's meeting of Iraqis and Iraqi exiles in the shadow of the ancient ziggurat of Ur was simply the beginning of what is likely to be a lengthy process. Its ultimate aim, according to US officials: build a government in which all Iraqis, be they Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd, feel they have a representative voice.
"There are some very dangerous cleavages there," says Rashid Khalidi, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Chicago. "If exploited by outside forces they could cause problems."
The US-sponsored forum on the grounds of Tallil Air Base came to no conclusions. Its most notable achievement was to replicate itself, with participants agreeing to meet again in 10 days.
General Garner opened the meeting by invoking its site, near the 4,000-year-old terraced pyramid of the Assyrians and Babylonians. "What better place than the birthplace of civilization could you have for the beginnings of a free Iraq?" he said, according to pool reports.
White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told participants that the US stay would be brief and that Washington had no interest in ruling Iraq. A national conference may pick an interim government - perhaps within weeks.
Participants included Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis from inside the country, as well as representatives of exile groups. While debate was generally congenial, there were some words of dissent. One Shiite representative said that those who wished to keep Iraq's government secular are "simply dreaming." Kurdish representatives appeared eager to expand the borders of their autonomous area to include the city of Kirkuk and Kurdish sections of Mosul - moves that would be fiercely opposed by Turkey and local Arabs.
Some Iraqis boycotted the meeting in opposition to US plans to have Garner run the nation, for now. Thousands of Shiites demonstrated in Nasiriyah, chanting both anti-Hussein and anti-US slogans.
A crowd of about 150 people showed up at an Army checkpoint on the outskirts of the air base itself. Some came to pass through and participate in the conference. Others came to simply in hopes of making themselves heard.
US military police blocked the road with barbed wire coils. Helicopters swooped overhead. At first people angrily shouted at the MPs. Civil Affairs troops with translators arrived to communicate with the crowd. Many of the Iraqis were dressed in suits and ties. Some had come from as far away as Najaf and Basrah.
In general, people in the crowd felt that the conference did not represent them. They wanted to represent themselves. They were upset that the US wasn't even telling them who was attending the conference. They were also upset at the lack of basic services in the cities such as food, water, policing, and medical care.
They were anxious for a transitional government to be set up - under the authority of the US and Great Britain - so that services could be restored immediately. Many felt that this transitional government should be short, however, and did not want the Americans to stay indefinitely.
Some in the crowd voiced support for Ahmad Chalabi, head of the London-based umbrella exile group Iraqi National Congress. Others feared that the US - which has already flown Mr. Chalabi back into the country - wants to impose him as a quasi-elected leader.
"Chalabi left Iraq years ago. He doesn't know now how the Iraqi people think and live," says Sami Alobady, a local engineer and self-described anti-Hussein activist, at the Tallil Air Base checkpoint.
The Chalabi issue is a delicate one for the US. Many in the Pentagon consider him a determined patriot and possible national leader. The State Department, meanwhile, tends to view him with more reserve.
Chalabi, now in the country, has already begun hiring young men for local militias, to provide security in various parts of the country. "This is the Lebanonization of Iraq. This is exactly what you don't want," says Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago.
And unity is the US goal. It will surely prove a difficult task to keep the Kurds looking south towards Baghdad for political leadership, while providing Shiite Muslims - the majority of the nation's population - a sense of empowerment, and making sure that the former ruling elite of Sunni Muslims does not brood about being deprived of power.