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Focus on national conference

[Iraq] Delegates at national conference in Baghdad. IRIN
Delegates at national conference in Baghdad
Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative for Iraq, told delegates on Sunday - the first day of the long-awaited national conference to elect a new national assembly in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, that a credible political transition in Iraq was the best solution to ongoing violence in the country. “This is a critical milestone on the path to the goal for all countries, which is a pluralistic, inclusive democracy. You have a tradition of settling differences through consensus building,” Qazi told delegates, noting the issue of insecurity in the country. However, he did not say when more UN workers might return to Iraq. International staff for the world body were evacuated almost one year ago after a car bomb at UN headquarters in the capital on 19 August killed 22 people, including the previous special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Only a handful of UN workers are in Iraq with Qazi for the conference. “The most serious and immediate concern is the lack of security,” Qazi said. “The current strife cannot be addressed only through politics.” Some 1,300 Iraqi delegates are taking part in the conference to name an interim assembly of 100, a process suggested in June by Lakhdar Brahimi, United Nations special adviser to Kofi Annan. The parliament will include 81 of the 1,100 delegates and 19 members of the former Governing Council, the authority named by US administrator Paul Bremer that served from November to June, following the US-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003. The UN is also expected to help organise the January 2005 election, a process advisers previously said would take eight months. FIGHTING CONTINUE UN officials asked for the conference to be put off for two weeks from 1 August to 15 August, to make sure enough diverse groups of people were invited. In the conference hall on Sunday, delegates didn't waste time in getting their message across. At least 20 Shi'ite Muslims attending, shouted for an end to fighting in the southern city of Najaf, throwing things into turmoil. Fighting resumed in the city between Mehdi army fighters, loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr and US troops. On Monday the conference agreed to send a delegation to meet Sadr to try again to draw him into the political process. The cleric was invited to the conference, but declined to attend as did members of the Muslim Association of Scholars, who are considered to be conservative Sunni Muslim leaders and the Islamic Party, another Sunni group. WOMEN'S VOICES A prominent female activist who was not invited to the conference criticised women attending for not taking a more active role. Earlier demonstrations by women’s groups led conference organisers to decide that women should hold 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament. “Nobody speaks about women’s rights, women’s equality with men, or shariat law in the government,” Yanar Mohammed, head of the Organisation for Women’s Federation in Iraq, told IRIN. “(Newly named interim president Sheikh Ghazi) al-Yawar, as a tribal leader, is the biggest enemy of women in Iraq,” she claimed. Many candidates support a secular state in Iraq, however, Said Ayad Jamal al-Din, an independent candidate, told IRIN, a measure that would be more supportive of women. Iraq’s conservative shariat law keeps many rights from women, Mohammed said, but it also was amended many times during the former regime. “Secularism discussions cause a lot of controversy,” al- Din said. “Plenty of people support it, but they don’t say it publicly. I say it, explicitly.” PUBLIC REACTION But those sorts of ideas were largely lost on the people of Baghdad as they said they had more pressing concerns. “All I know is that the roads are blocked,” Moyyed Namah, a 25-year-old shopkeeper, told IRIN. “We need security, not conferences. I have no idea what is happening there. The media is busy covering the terrible situation in Najaf,” Namah said he was worried that the conference “curfew” blocking streets from 8 am to 4 pm would cause insurgents to set off some sort of explosion. “My country is in a panic about security, so we don’t pay much attention to this conference,” Ahmed Matham, 50, a secondary school teacher, told IRIN. “I don’t think we can find real representatives that will watch over Iraq there, just politicians looking for seats.” On Sunday afternoon, mortar fire killed four near the conference in the heavily fortified “green zone” where thousands of US citizens and other foreigners live. “All the people want is to stop the violence in Iraq,” Hamid al-Kefaye, an independent candidate, told IRIN. Ordinary Iraqis clearly want results fast. “We want a peaceful solution to fighting. We don’t need a conference to do it,” Majid Saduk Ismail, 45, a taxi driver, told IRIN. IMPERFECT PROCESS Meanwhile, organisers of the conference said it was the best way forward. “We don’t expect everything to go smoothly overnight, but it’s the best way we can do this process,” said Ibrahim Nawar, an adviser to the United Nations mission overseeing the conference. Hamid al-Sharifi, attending the conference as the delegate of the Institute for Religious Freedom in Iraq, agreed. “It is far from being perfect, given the current situation,” al-Sharifi told IRIN referring to the fighting in Najaf and in the Sadr City suburb of Baghdad. “We don’t expect Iraqis to accept it, because it is not an election." Now that it’s been more than a year since US-led troops invaded Iraq, some people feel disappointed that there haven’t been actual elections yet, Bashim al-Hashimi, 55, a journalist working for a newspaper run by a political party in Iraq, told IRIN. He declined to say which political party he represented. “People don’t know what’s going on. The process doesn’t seem to be based on any logical reason,” al-Hashimi said. “This won’t meet the needs of the Iraqi people.” SUBSTITUTE FOR AN ELECTED BODY Al Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein, head of the constitutional monarchy party and the nephew of King Faisal II, who ruled until 1951, was even darker in his predictions. “What this conference should have been about is to expand the base of international institutions,“ al-Hussein told IRIN. “Our view has been no military solution to the current situation. I think it will get worse, not better.” Problems like the fighting between Sadr and US troops will not get resolved before there are “clean and honest elections,” al-Hussein said. “I worry that the United Nations will declare the security situation is such that it will not allow them to supervise an election. I fear the conference will be a substitute for the elections,” he added. Meanwhile, world officials, including US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, insist that Iraq should hold national elections in January as called for under a transitional law approved in November. Back at the conference, after hearing from the new UN special representative for Iraq, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and President Ghazi al-Yawar, delegates split into groups to discuss politics, reconstruction, security law and order, and human rights and transitional justice. A vote for the actual parliament is expected on Monday.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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