Iraqi Conference on Election Plan Sinks Into Chaos

By JOHN F. BURNS

The New York Times

August 16, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 15 - A conference of more than 1,100 Iraqis chosen to take the country a crucial step further toward constitutional democracy convened in Baghdad on Sunday under siege-like conditions, only to be thrown into disorder by delegates staging angry protests against the American-led military operation in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

After an opening speech by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, delegates leapt out of their seats demanding the conference be suspended. One Shiite delegate stormed the stage before being forced back, shouting, "We demand that military operations in Najaf stop immediately!"

Shortly afterward, two mortar shells fired at the area where the meeting was being held landed in a bus and truck terminal nearby, killing 2 people and wounding at least 17.

The three-day conference, called to elect a 100-member commission that is to organize elections in January and hold veto powers over decrees passed by the Allawi government, was not halted. But reporters who had been told to wear flak jackets and helmets when entering the convention center complex past American tanks were frantically waved back from the center's plate glass windows as the mortar shells exploded, shaking the complex and rattling the windows.

In many ways, the scene seemed like a metaphor for America's problems in Iraq, with the rebel attacks that have spread to virtually every Sunni and Shiite town across this country of 25 million threatening to overwhelm plans for three rounds of national elections next year, ending with a fully elected government in January 2006.

Just as American troops in Najaf have failed so far to quell an uprising by a rebel Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, so on Sunday's showing here, American political plans for Iraq remain hostage to the violence that has made much of the country enemy territory for the Americans.

The fighting in Najaf, which resumed Sunday after the Allawi government walked out of truce talks, is part of a wider insurrection across southern Iraq by militiamen loyal to Mr. Sadr, who has cast himself as a tribune of the Shiite underclass and as the leader of a national resistance movement against American troops.

The signs in Najaf were of preparations for yet another attempt to force Mr. Sadr and a force of perhaps 1,000 men from his Mahdi Army militia to relinquish control of the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiism's holiest shrine, and by defeating them there, to begin rolling back the challenge he poses to plans to stabilize the country.

After a day of sporadic gunfire and explosions that shook Najaf's Old City, with the mosque at its center, reporters said they had seen American tanks blocking almost every street leading to the shrine, some as little as 1,000 yards away.

American commanders spoke of tightening the cordon they threw around the Old City last week, but of leaving any attempt to move into the immediate vicinity of the shrine to the Iraqi forces that Prime Minister Allawi said Saturday would now carry the brunt of the Najaf fighting.

By using Iraqi troops, Dr. Allawi and the American officials who are his partners in Baghdad hope to avoid the eruption of fury among Iraq's majority Shiites - and across the wider Shiite world, particularly in Iran - if American troops were seen to have damaged or desecrated the mosque, which is revered as the burial place of Imam Ali, Shiism's founding saint.

In a further sign that a new push against Mr. Sadr might be imminent, the Allawi government ordered the expulsion of all reporters working in Najaf, Iraqis as well as Westerners, and even warned Najaf residents working as freelancers for Western news outlets to cease work.

"I received orders from the interior minister, who demands that all local, Arab and foreign journalists leave the hotel and the city within two hours," Gen. Ghaleb al-Jazairi, Najaf's police chief, told newsmen at the hotel on the edge of the Old City that has become a news media headquarters. He gave as his reason the government's inability to protect the journalists if major new battles erupted.

Taken together, the events in Baghdad and Najaf appeared to catch Iraq at a new tipping point. Many Iraqis believe that events in the days ahead are likely to signal as clearly as anything in recent months whether the wider American enterprise in Iraq can emerge from a seemingly endless sequence of reverses and achieve at least a part of what President Bush and other advocates of the war have said they are seeking here. That is the midwifing of a new, peaceful, democratic Iraq - or, contrarily, a further descent into bloodshed and chaos, at a continuing heavy cost in Iraqi and American lives.

From modest beginnings 16 months ago, when American troops toppled Saddam Hussein, Mr. Sadr has used every confrontation with United States forces to build his political following, and his militia, to the point that he now boasts of being able to thwart attempts to build a Western-style democracy, and to fundamentally disrupt the $18 billion American reconstruction program.

For months, American officials have said Mr. Sadr's challenge must be overcome if he is not to imperil all they have worked for here. The sense now, in the heavily guarded compound beside the Tigris River where the American Embassy works side by side with United States military commanders and top officials of the Allawi government, is that the moment may have arrived.

Deliberately killing or capturing Mr. Sadr, as American commanders vowed during an earlier Sadr insurrection in April, has now been ruled out, American officials say, since the cleric, if harmed in circumstances for which the Americans could be blamed, could become more of a rallying point among his following.

With Mr. Sadr believed to be entrenched with his militia in the Najaf shrine, or somewhere in areas of the Old City controlled by the militia, the need not to harm him personally has added extra complexity to American military planning. But a greater problem is the political one.

American officials have been hoping for months that moderate Shiite leaders would coalesce in a condemnation of Mr. Sadr's resort to arms. But this time, as in April, there has been mostly silence from those leaders, even from those who privately excoriate the cleric as a rabble-rousing upstart who has defiled a 1,000-year tradition by making an armory of the Imam Ali shrine.

With the conference in Baghdad, Dr. Allawi and the Americans saw an opportunity to demonstrate that, the violence across the country notwithstanding, it was possible to proceed with the timetable for democracy laid down earlier this year, when Iraq was still formally an occupied country. As well, in the context of the uprising in Najaf and the Sadr militia's attacks elsewhere, they wanted to show that a large number of politically active Iraqis - Shiites a majority among them - would defy threats of violence from Mr. Sadr's fighters and other insurgent groups and attend the gathering.

By that measure, Iraqi and American officials said, they counted the conference a success, just for the fact that it had convened.

For weeks, at caucuses across the country, thousands of Iraqis competed for election to the conference, and for the say it would give them in shaping the country's political future. A two-week postponement of the gathering, ordered in hope of broadening participation, did not yield any breakthroughs, particularly in persuading influential Sunni Muslim groups like the Muslim Clerics Association, or Mr. Sadr, to abandon their boycott of the process.

Still, the turnout exceeded the goal of at least 1,000 delegates, including some from Najaf and the other cities now roiled by Mr. Sadr's uprisings.

Yet the conference's opening day was dominated not by discussion of the coming elections or of the many other issues that confront Iraq, including the ruined economy, but by delegates' demands for an end to American and Iraqi military operations against Mr. Sadr. In speech after speech on Sunday, delegates called on Dr. Allawi to stop the fighting.

In an attempt to regain control, conference organizers established a committee to draft a resolution on Najaf, and it was carried to Dr. Allawi by a small group of delegates.

A larger group of about 100 threatened to walk out over the issue, but eventually relented. "Nobody withdrew, and that was all there was to it," said Fouad Masoum, the conference's principal organizer.

Dr. Allawi, a 59-year-old physician who came to the prime minister's post with a reputation for toughness, made a brief opening address to the gathering that suggested that he had little intention of backing down over Najaf, which he visited a week ago, vowing "no negotiations or truce" with Mr. Sadr.

"Your blessed gathering here is a challenge for the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country and this assembly," he told delegates. With that, he quickly withdrew to his offices 500 yards away, avoiding the clamorous protests that ensued on the conference floor.

His compromise was to meet with the conference delegation, led by Hussein al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric and distant relative of Moktada al-Sadr who, like Dr. Allawi, spent years in exile in London, escaping the repression of Mr. Hussein.

On the conference floor, Hussein al-Sadr had taken an ambiguous position, as have many Shiite religious leaders, saying that military operations in Najaf should end, but that somehow "the government should enforce its control over all of Iraq."

That appeared to cut little ice with Dr. Allawi, a Shiite, who scheduled a news conference in the convention center at the end of the day's discussions, then abruptly canceled it.

In his place, he sent a junior minister, Wael Abdul Latif, who reiterated the government's demand that the Sadr militiamen disarm and quit Najaf, or face a showdown with Iraqi troops. He said Dr. Allawi had not yet given the order for the operation to begin, but implied that it might not be long in coming if Mr. Sadr failed to send word that he was ready to negotiate seriously on the government's terms.

"We call on everyone who is in the shrine to vacate it," he said. "There is an open door, but it will not remain open for very long."