IRAQ: The National Conference

January 27, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What is the Iraqi National Conference?

It is a gathering of some 1,100 prominent Iraqis under way in Baghdad. Its main purpose is to select the members of a 100-seat National Council that will serve as Iraq’s interim legislature until elections in January 2005. But dealing with the ongoing violence in Iraq has so far dominated the meeting’s agenda. A group of delegates trying to bring an end to the fighting in southern Iraq left August 17 for Najaf, where it will urge radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to call off his Mehdi Army militia and join the political process.

Who is attending the conference?

Representatives from Iraq’s political parties, regions, tribes, universities, women’s groups, and other civil society organizations. All of Iraq’s main ethnic groups and religious sects are in attendance, including Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians. According to the conference organizers, some 40 percent of the delegates are political party members, 40 percent are religious, tribal, or academic leaders, and the rest are civil society representatives from unions, women’s rights groups, and other organizations.

Where is the conference taking place?

In the fortified Green Zone enclave in Baghdad, where the American Embassy, U.S. military command, and government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi are based. The event is being held under intense security; a 15-foot-high concrete barrier blocks the conference center’s entrance, and the government imposed a daytime curfew for the area.

Has the meeting been targeted by insurgents?

Yes. On August 17, insurgents fired mortar rounds into and around the Green Zone, but did not injure any of the delegates. One of the explosives hit a crowded nearby street, killing at least seven people and wounding 35. A mortar barrage fired into a nearby bus and truck terminal on August 15, the first day of the conference, killed two people and wounded 17 others.

Who organized the conference?

A committee called the Supreme Commission, made up of 100 Iraqis, including 20 former members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was dissolved June 1. Fuad Masoum, the commission chairman, is a lawyer and one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main Kurdish political parties.

How were the conference delegates selected?

About half the seats were filled by selection committees in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces. These committees reviewed applications and nominations and submitted their choices to the commission. Other delegates were nominated directly by members of the organizing committee. The United Nations also played a role; in the final stages of planning, U.N. representatives assisting the Iraqis requested that they include more than the originally scheduled 1,000 delegates. This was to better represent minority and other underrepresented groups, according to press reports.

Which political parties are participating?

The main political parties that opposed Saddam Hussein, as well as dozens of smaller political parties, says Qubad Talabani, the U.S. representative of the PUK.

These parties also participated in the IGC. They include:

Is exile leader Ahmed Chalabi attending?

No, but delegates from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the anti-Saddam Hussein exile group he leads, are in attendance, says INC spokesman Entifadh Qanbar. Before the invasion of Iraq, Chalabi and his group worked closely with the Pentagon and, after being flown into Iraq by the U.S. military during the invasion, Chalabi served in a powerful position on the IGC. But he has since clashed with U.S. and Iraqi authorities. In May, U.S. military and Iraqi police raided his Baghdad home on suspicion that he passed U.S. secrets to Iran. On August 11, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Chalabi on charges that he counterfeited Iraqi currency. Allawi has also ordered Chalabi’s primary Baghdad office closed. Police are keeping Chalabi from attending the conference, Qanbar said.

Are insurgents attending?

For the most part, no. Sadr, 31, refused to attend, though one delegate representing him showed up at the conference on its second day, according to news reports. Among the Sunnis, insurgents targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces in areas north and west of Baghdad, including Falluja and Ramadi, continue to fight and have not acknowledged the conference as legitimate. The Muslim Clerics Association, an influential Sunni group opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, is boycotting. Some 20 percent of Iraqis are Arab Sunnis; about 60 percent are Shiites; and some 20 percent are Sunni Kurds.

Did the conference start on time?

No. According to the annex of the Transitional Administrative Law passed by the IGC before the end of occupation, the conference was to start by the end of July. A two-week postponement, backed by U.N. representatives, was ordered by Allawi in order to allow more time to persuade Sadr and other leaders who oppose the political process to attend.

What will the National Council do?

It will serve as a check on the executive branch’s power and as a forum for Iraqis to discuss the problems facing the country and make suggestions to Allawi. While it will not be able to pass laws, it will:

  • oversee the work of the interim government and question ministers about their performance;
  • be authorized to veto prime ministerial executive orders with a two-thirds majority;
  • have the authority to replace the president and two vice presidents in the event of their resignation or death; and
  • approve the 2005 budget.

How will the National Conference delegates be chosen?

Nineteen of the 100 seats will go to former IGC members who are not currently serving in the interim government, according to the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law. The additional 81 delegates will be chosen at the National Conference by vote, most likely on August 18.

Where does the National Council fit in the evolution of the Iraqi government?

Council members—and any other Iraqi who meets some basic qualifications—will be eligible to run in the January 2005 elections for a 275-seat transitional assembly. That assembly will select the leaders of a transitional government and oversee the writing and ratification of a permanent constitution. Elections for a permanent government will occur by the end of 2005, according to a plan laid out in the Transitional Administrative Law.

Will participants in the National Council have an advantage in the elections?

Probably, many analysts say. The membership of the National Council will be broader than the IGC’s, but the council “will undoubtedly be dominated by the established parties, as the election probably will be,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Some analysts doubt the National Council, with its brief, five-month lifespan, will be particularly influential. Instead, it will serve largely as a springboard for the elections. “This is not a process in which the Iraqi population as a whole is participating. It’s a small group of handpicked people coming together to pick a smaller group of handpicked people,” says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What role is the United States playing at the conference?

U.S. officials helped to plan security, accommodations, and logistics for the national conference, said Ronald L. Schlicher, the State Department’s Iraq coordinator, in congressional testimony July 22. But the United States is not playing a central role at the event, says Ala Noori Talabani, Masoum’s chief of staff. U.S. representatives are attending only as observers.

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