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John Vause: Divisions over new government

Iraqis fear one dictator will be replaced with another

CNN correspondent John Vause
CNN correspondent John Vause

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NASIRIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- The United States invited handpicked Iraqi opposition leaders to Nasiriya on Tuesday for the first of a series of talks on shaping a new government, but thousands of protesting Shiite Muslims want to make sure their voices are heard.

CNN correspondent John Vause, reporting from the southern Iraq city, spoke with CNN anchor Carol Costello in Atlanta about the latest developments there.

VAUSE: This is the first of those U.S.-sponsored meetings. They're regional meetings. They're called big tent gatherings, and they're basically a chance to hear the views -- in the words of the United States' administration -- "the views of those who have struggled inside the country and those who have struggled outside the country."

Now that is a clear reference that Iraqi exiles will be included in this process. But we know that Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, is not attending this meeting, he is sending a delegate, and that is a sign of those deep divisions.

Also, as far as who's attending, it's just not known. The White House isn't saying and that's causing a great deal of concern here, especially among the people of Nasiriya.

There was a protest earlier today, thousands of people marching through the streets. They were the Shiite Muslims. They were carrying banners saying we want to be included in this process. That is kind of ironic given the fact that the Shiite Muslims are now boycotting this meeting.

So word of that boycott is now getting down to the streets and the people of Nasiriya. Their big concern, though, is that they will be locked out of that process.

We also asked these people what did they want, did they want the United States to stay, how long, what kind of government did they want? Opinions were very, very divided. Some people said yes, we want the United States, we want the British to stay while we rebuild, while we reconstruct this country.

Others were saying United States should get out right now. We are Iraqis. We can handle our own affairs. So there are deep divisions there. Also, deep division exists about what role the former Baath Party officials should play in any future government.

Now these meetings that will take place throughout Iraq will basically lead up to forming an Iraqi interim authority. That, the United States wants to happen as soon as possible.

COSTELLO: Two questions for you. This is just a first step. Creating an interim government will take weeks, months, we just don't know, and those protests seemed rather large. We've seen protests in Baghdad, but they're rather small. In Nasiriya, it appears there were thousands and thousands of people in that protest. Am I seeing it right?

VAUSE: Yes, that's right, Carol. You've got to remember Nasiriya was probably the scene of the most fierce fighting of the war. This was about the only place where there was an organized military resistance to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

So feelings are running quite deep here. And what the people of Nasiriya are saying is that they do not want to be locked out of this process, they want a part of it. And their great fear, as we spoke to some people in town, is that one dictator, Saddam Hussein, will be replaced by another.

COSTELLO: And as far as how long will the creation of this interim government take, is there any timetable attached to this?

VAUSE: I guess the best example or the best way of looking at this is, if you look at what happened in Afghanistan, that took many, many months. So many different groups in Afghanistan had to come together. They had to find a charismatic leader like Hamid Karzai.

Now whether that is Ahmed Chalabi is still unknown at this stage. Certainly had some support in Nasiriya. Others do not want him. So they've got to find a leader, they've got to find a process to pull this all together. It certainly looks as if it will take many, many months before anything like an interim authority begins to take shape.

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