By Zaki Yahya in Najaf (ICR No. 25, 02-July-03)
A conference of 900 Iraqi notables have demanded the quick establishment of an Iraqi government to combat the lawlessness and insecurity that reign three months after the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist regime.
The group said the transitional government should have a six-month mandate, renewable once only, to draw up a constitution for the new Iraq. The move puts new pressure on the occupying forces to agree to some form of Iraqi government, rather than the interim political council which the United States now favours.
The three-day meeting, called by a group of lawyers from Najaf, was the first nationwide meeting to bring Iraqi professionals together with representatives of the country's political parties. It has confirmed the emergence of Najaf, the centre of Shia Muslim scholarship and authority in Iraq, as a force for democratic change with a critical but cooperative stance towards the occupying forces.
The conference, financed by the Najaf Chamber of Commerce and a number of local lawyers, was held without the prior approval of the coalition forces – although an invitation was extended to Abd al-Minem al-Sudani, the US-appointed mayor of Najaf. Al-Sudani, however, was arrested in the immediate aftermath of the conference on charges of corruption. His arrest marked a victory for the citizens of Najaf, who had campaigned against his appointment, accusing him of having belonged to Saddam's intelligence services.
The Najaf meeting was attended by lawyers from all over the country, with the exception of the northern Kurdish region, and representatives of the main political parties including monarchists, liberals and the US-backed Iraqi National Congress.
It approved a blueprint drawn up by the lawyers for a temporary government which would draw up a new constitution. They propose that one minister be selected from each Iraqi province, and that a new ministry be created with special responsibility for relatives of those killed by Saddam's regime.
It said the occupation of Iraq should be combated "by diplomatic means".
The conference scheduled a second meeting to be held in Baghdad on July 12 to announce the formation of a government.
The country's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, in Najaf at the weekend criticising US plans to appoint a governing council and demanding elections instead, so that Iraqis can elect their own constitutional convention. According to the fatwa, "There is no guarantee that the [US-backed] council would create a constitution conforming with the greater interests of the Iraqi people and expressing the national identity, whose basis is Islam and its noble social values."
Two days after the fatwa was issued, the central role being played by Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf was confirmed when Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, travelled to the town for discussions on how to form a national government. Sistani said all Iraqi communities should nominate representatives to a national conference, which would elect a cabinet
The idea of such a conference has been rejected by the United States' chief administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who has said he plans to appoint 25 to 30 people to a political council which would in turn name candidates for senior ministry positions.
Zaki Yahya is a resident of Najaf.