By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 4/16/03
Some of the exiles among the group of Iraqis cried and kissed the ground when they landed at Tallil Air Base here, after being flown in from Doha, Qatar, by the US military. The meeting came just four weeks into the American-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to Iraq, told the carefully selected group of about 80 internal opposition figures and exiled Iraqis, "We have no intention of ruling Iraq. . . We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values . . . . I urge you to take this opportunity to cooperate with each other."
Despite the tone of optimism and cooperation, the negative reactions of some Iraqis to the meeting signaled a treacherous road ahead for Iraq, which has no tradition of democracy but long experience with divisions between Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shi'ites.
Some groups boycotted the meeting, and about 5,000 people marched calmly and peacefully in the center of the southern city Nasiriyah to protest the exclusion of a group of local Shi'ite clerics and also the forceful hand of the United States behind this early exercise in nation building.
"We don't want democracy brought by American tanks," said Sayed Ali al-Musawi, a Muslim cleric who helped organize the demonstration. "They must leave our land and let us control our country."
The leader of another influential Shi'ite group, the Daawa party, turned down his invitation.
"We have our reservations against attending a meeting called for by a military side," said Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
In Washington, President Bush remarked on the gathering, saying, "Today the world is safer, the terrorists have lost an ally, the Iraqi people are regaining control of their own destiny. These are good days for the history of freedom."
Only the opening and closing portions of the long meeting were open to the media, and it was not clear if the 13-point statement was drafted in advance by US officials. But retired general Jay Garner had a role in one outcome -- the decision to reconvene in 10 days, with additional invitees, in a location not yet decided.
Garner, who will lead Iraq under the command of General Tommy Franks for the coming months, called for a decision on a timeframe. Khalilzad asked for a show of hands for either 10 days or two weeks. Ten days won.
Number one on the 13-point statement was a simple four-word sentence: "Iraq must be democratic."
Number two said the government "should not be based on communal identity," an allusion to the religious, ethnic, and tribal divisions of the country.
The statement calls for a federal system and respect for the role of women. It condemns the rampant looting of the past week in many cities, and calls for an immediate effort to address security and the restoration of basic services like water and electricity.
Though the participants had just been flown into Tallil by the US military, point seven referred to "the principle that Iraqis must choose their leaders, not have them imposed from outside."
Some of those gathered said they opposed the rule, however brief, of Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
"We will press for any Iraqi civilian administration regardless of what the Americans say," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an Iraqi doctor. "An administration by Garner is not acceptable."
Another area of contention was the role of religion in politics. The statement said only that the matter was discussed.
Although he is a Shi'ite religious leader, Sheik Ayad Jamal al-Din, urged separation of mosque and state. Din, from Nasiriyah, demanded a "system of government that separates belief from politics," and went on to say, "Dictators may not speak in the name of religion."
Secondary school teacher Nassar Hussein Musawi, disagreed. "Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming," he said.
The joint statement declared that "the Ba'ath party must be dissolved and its effects on society must be eliminated," which will be much easier said than done, since anyone who wanted an education or a decent job in recent decades had no choice but to join the Ba'ath party.
Still, destroying the Ba'ath party apparatus is the only way to create a functional post-Saddam Hussein society, according to participants.
"Shunning violence doesn't mean forgiving past crimes, it means confronting them with law and justice," said Rend Francke, an Iraqi woman in attendance.
The meeting took place in a red-carpeted tent near Ur, within site of an ancient, massive mud-brick ziggurat -- a terraced-pyramid temple of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. Participants included Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites.
Attendance was by invitation only, but each group chose its own representatives. The most famed Iraqi opposition leader, Ahmad Chalabi, was just a couple of miles away in the compound of the Iraqi National Congress's 700 Free Iraqi Forces, but did not attend. Instead, he sent representatives, including Entifad Qanbar, the Iraqi National Congress emissary in Washington.
"We have a working organization, and it's not a question of personality," said an Iraqi National Congress spokesman, Feisal Chalabi. "He can't be everywhere. We have work to do on the ground here."
Despite the decision to issue a statement, the gathering was not designed to hammer out anything specific, but just to get the discussion rolling, said Air Force Major Jon Anderson at Tallil Air Base. "It's more of a getting-to-know-you kind of meeting, than deciding on a constitution," he said.
The road to the site of the discussion, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, was blocked with barbed wire about a mile from the entrance to the air base, and guarded by dozens of military police who had to turn away a steady stream of Iraqis wanting to give their input.
Many of those who came to the checkpoint were angry that they -- or the tribal and religious groups to which they belonged -- were not allowed in.
One such man was Ali Abdul Rassak, who made a five-hour bus trip from Baghdad.
"Before we were suffering an absence of democracy," said Rassak. "Now it seems like we are hearing the same melody we heard before."