Iraq's Future is Next Challenge-article
TALLIL AIRBASE, Iraq (April 15) - With their war against Saddam Hussein all but won in less than four weeks, the United States and Britain headed into talks on Tuesday with Iraq's fractious groups on how to rule the country now he is gone.
U.S.-led troops worked alongside local police to try and restore order on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities after Saddam's final stronghold, his hometown of Tikrit, fell to U.S. forces on Monday without the bloody fight many expected.
Talks near the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, 235 miles south of Baghdad, are aimed at shaping a postwar Iraq but looked set to highlight the divisions and discord that run deep among Iraqi opposition groups.
Anti-U.S. protests erupted even before the talks began. Arabic television channels showed thousands of Iraqis protesting in Nassiriya against the talks, saying they wanted to rule themselves and chanting: ''No to America, No to Saddam.''
About 60 Iraqis, from radical and mainstream Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim, Kurdish and monarchist groups, were due to attend the talks. But many are irked by Washington's choice of Jay Garner, a retired U.S. general, to head an interim postwar administration.
U.S. and British officials have said they hope Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) can be up and running in Baghdad in as little as two weeks and that elections can be held within a year.
But there are few illusions about the difficulties of installing a democratic government in an ethnically and religiously divided land that over the past century has known monarchy, military dictatorship and one-party Baathist rule.
The stakes, nonetheless, are high. Though devastated by wars and sanctions, Iraq possesses the world's second largest proven oil reserves and is strategically located between the Arab world, Iran and Turkey.
BOYCOTT BY SHI'ITE GROUP
Ahmad Chalabi, the high-profile Iraqi businessman favored by the Pentagon for a role in Iraq, said he would send a representative rather than attend himself. Iraq's main Shi'ite Muslim opposition group has decided to boycott the meeting altogether.
''It is not to the benefit of the Iraqi nation,'' said Abdelaziz Hakim, a leader of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). ''We don't accept a U.S. umbrella or anybody else's.''
A spokesman for Chalabi, Zaab Sethna, told BBC radio that Tuesday's meeting -- being held at Tallil Airbase near Nassiriya amid tight media controls by the U.S. military -- was one of a series that would take place in different parts of Iraq.
''The leadership of the Iraqi opposition...will hold its own meeting in Baghdad and we expect all the various members of the opposition to be there,'' Sethna said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw put a brave face on the absences and sought to dampen expectations about the meeting. ''It is not a one-off, it's the beginning of a process to restore governance,'' he said during a trip to Qatar.
Brigadier General Tim Cross, the top British official in Garner's team, said one thing united the Iraqi groups: ''I think they want us to leave as quickly as possible. They want to be responsible for their own country again.''
Garner, who will chair Tuesday's talks, said he was concerned at the slow start of Iraq's transition effort.
''My fear right now is every day we delay we're probably losing some momentum and there's perhaps some vacuums in there getting filled that we won't want filled,'' Kuwait-based Garner said in an interview with USA Today published on Tuesday.
The Nassiriya talks take place with the United States insisting that the looting and lawlessness that marked the first days after Saddam's overthrow on Wednesday are subsiding.
U.S. troops recalled thousands of police who previously worked for Saddam to help maintain order in Baghdad.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: ''We are near the end of the conflict...the challenge of the peace is now beginning.''
The United States has already said it is trimming the number of aircraft carriers deployed in the Gulf and Mediterranean since U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq on March 20.
LEGACY OF CHAOS
But U.S. commanders said they were still on the alert for hit-and-run attacks by diehard Saddam loyalists and anti-American volunteers from other Arab countries.
Saddam himself has disappeared, as have most of his aides. Only two out of 55 officials on a U.S. ''most wanted'' list have so far been caught.
Baghdad was slowly returning to a semblance of normality after three weeks of air raids and four days of near-anarchy. Some food stores opened and traffic jams again clogged the streets, but water and power supplies remained cut.
The legacy of days of chaos include the loss and destruction of thousands of treasures from the National Museum and Library and the ransacking of many government offices.
Deliveries of humanitarian aid -- food, water and medical supplies -- have increased as security fears start to ease.
The Rome-based World Food Program said food shipments into northern Iraq through Turkey would soon be running at 2,000 tonnes a day. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said trucks carrying 120,000 litres of drinking water were due to cross from Iran into southern Iraq on Tuesday.
Saddam's last power base at Tikrit, 110 miles north of Baghdad, fell easily to U.S. Marines on Monday, sealing the U.S. and British victory in the war.
With the main fighting over in Iraq, Washington turned up the heat on neighboring Syria, calling it a ''rogue nation.''
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Damascus of testing chemical weapons within the last 12 to 15 months and of harbouring Saddam's top associates. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned of possible diplomatic or economic sanctions.
Syria denied the U.S. charges, while U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern that the U.S. approach could further destabilize an already shaky Middle East.