U.S., Iraqi leaders confer on nation's future
UR, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi leaders opposed to the regime of deposed President Saddam Hussein convened Tuesday in the ancient southern Iraqi town of Ur -- the first of several U.S.-sponsored meetings on the nation's future.
The Iraqi leaders, handpicked by Washington, met with U.S. officials to discuss a variety of matters, including whether Saddam's Baath Party will play a role in the new government.
The meeting took place in a white tent in the shadow of the restored remains of the Ur ziggurat, or observatory, built about 4,000 years ago.
According to a 13-point statement released later by U.S. Central Command, delegates agreed to work toward a democratic, federal system "not based on communal identity" that will be "built on respect for diversity, including respect for the role of women." (U.S. statement)
One of the hubs of Mesopotamia, Ur was founded in the fourth millennium B.C., served as the seat for Sumerian king Ur-Nammu in 2100 B.C. and is said to be the birthplace of Abraham -- a prominent figure in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths.
Before the session began, hundreds of Shiite Muslims protested in nearby Nasiriya, saying they were angered that they might not have a voice in the debate.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that the meeting will reflect "the views of those who have been struggling outside as well as those who are now free inside" Iraq.
"It will be a fairly large gathering of individuals," Powell said. "Let's remember [that] this is just the first of many meetings that will be held."
President Bush also mentioned the current Iraqi situation during an event highlighting his economic policy at the White House on Tuesday. "Our victory in Iraq is certain, but it is not complete," Bush said. "Centralized power of the dictator has ended. Yet, in parts of Iraq desperate and dangerous elements remain."
Washington has not divulged the names of attendees, saying it may later release a list.
Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, one of the top anti-Saddam groups based outside Iraq, has said he would send a representative to the meeting.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush's special envoy to Iraq, chaired the meeting, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs, moderated.
In addition, retired U.S. Army Gen. Jay Garner, who is heading the Pentagon's office of reconstruction for Iraq, will address the group. (Profile)
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the United States wants to see an interim Iraqi authority formed "as soon as possible."
He said this meeting, and the ones that follow, will help bring Iraqis together to give "input into how they would view their future."
Delegate for Iraqi exile leader
Chalabi, a U.S.-educated former banker who has been mentioned as a possible leader in the new Iraqi government, has said he is "not a candidate" for any position in a post-war Iraqi government but pledged to support the process.
The Bush administration has backed away from Chalabi after he made critical comments. One official last week said the administration "wants to see who has support, who is popular and who the Iraqis coalesce around."
Chalabi described Tuesday's conference as a "meeting ... called by the U.S. to give their vision of the interim Iraqi authority. It will be a one-day meeting. And the U.S. will present its vision, and there will be a statement after the meeting."
Speaking Sunday to CNN, Chalabi also described his short-term goals.
"The looting must stop. Disorder must stop. And we must restore order quickly," he said, adding that humanitarian needs in the cities must be met.