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Protests mar talks for new govt.

Thousands of Iraqi Shiites demonstrate on Tuesday against a meeting to rebuild the war-torn nation being held in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. They chanted slogans:

Thousands of Iraqi Shiites demonstrate on Tuesday against a meeting to rebuild the war-torn nation being held in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. They chanted slogans: "Yes to freedom...Yes to Islam...No to America...No to Saddam". - AP  

UR (Iraq) APRIL 15. A U.S.-sponsored forum that brought Iraqi opposition leaders together to shape the country's post-war government began on Tuesday with a U.S. promise not to rule Iraq and concluded with an agreement to meet again in 10 days. Some Shiite Muslim groups boycotted the meeting and thousands protested nearby while representatives from some of Iraq's many factions met in the biblical birthplace of the prophet Abraham.

Jay Garner, a retired Lt. General, who is to head the U.S.-led interim administration in Iraq, opened the conference under a golden-coloured tent at Tallil air base, close to the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, a terraced-pyramid temple of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. "What better place than the birthplace of civilisation could you have for the beginning of a free Iraq?" he said wearing an Iraqi flag pin on his blue shirt. The White House envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, told delegates that the U.S. had "no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq".

Participants included Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites from inside the country and others who have spent years in exile. U.S. officials invited the groups, but each picked their own representatives.

Many Iraqis boycotted the meeting in opposition to U.S. plans to install Mr. Garner atop an interim administration. Thousands of Shiites demonstrated in nearby An Nasiriyah, chanting "No to America and no to Saddam Hussein!''

U.S. officials hope more Iraqis join the process over time and stressed that this was just the first of many such meetings in Iraq. The meeting concluded with the delegates voting by a show of hands to meet again in 10 days, a senior U.S. Government official said.

A national conference is planned to select the interim administration, perhaps within weeks, a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. The interim administration could begin handing power back to Iraqi officials within three to six months, but forming a government will take longer, said Tim Cross, the top British member of Mr. Garner's team.

The White House special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad (second from right), talking with representatives of two prominent Iraqi tribes and Maha al-Shaibib Joudi (right), member of the Project for the Future of Iraq, at the opening of a U.S.-sponsored meeting at the Tallil airbase, in southern Iraq, on Tuesday. - AFP

The White House special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad (second from right), talking with representatives of two prominent Iraqi tribes and Maha al-Shaibib Joudi (right), member of the Project for the Future of Iraq, at the opening of a U.S.-sponsored meeting at the Tallil airbase, in southern Iraq, on Tuesday. - AFP  

Mr. Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance is given the charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance, rebuilding infrastructure shattered by years of war and U.N. sanctions, and gradually handing back power to Iraqis leading a democratically elected government.

Tuesday's meeting was the first step toward that goal after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

In addition to Mr. Khalilzad and Mr. Garner, the meeting was attended by representatives from Britain, Australia and Poland, which contributed forces to the coalition.

There are already tensions between the U.S. and some Iraqi factions. Kurdish groups appear unwilling to compromise on their demand to expand the border of their autonomous area to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and Kurdish parts of the city of Mosul. That could pose a problem for the U.S., because Turkey worries that Kurdish control of Kirkuk could lead to aspirations for independence and in turn encourage separatist Kurds in Turkey.

Iraqi Opposition leaders fear the U.S. administration is trying to force Ahmed Chalabi, head of the London-based umbrella Iraqi National Congress, on them as leader of a new Iraqi administration.

Mr. Chalabi was the first top Iraqi Opposition leader to be airlifted by the U.S. into southern Iraq as the fighting wound down, and he and other top members of his group plan to meet soon in Baghdad. U.S. officials said Mr. Chalabi was brought in because he offered forces to the coalition.

Neither Mr. Chalabi nor many other leaders of anti-Saddam Hussein groups attended Tuesday's meeting, but they sent delegates.

Meanwhile, to the north, in Tikrit, looters ransacked the agricultural building. Tanks were parked outside Mr. Hussein's palace and helicopters roared over the Tigris. A key bridge that American forces seized a day earlier was damaged, and U.S. troops refused to let people cross.

In Baghdad, hundreds of residents swarmed the Palestine Hotel on Tuesday, appealing for order in the capital. One held up a sign in English reading: "Bloody liberation movie is started. Bad director." Some chanted "down, down, U.S.," and "U.S. out".

Looters broke into Government warehouses and carted away sacks of sugar and flour. The three-storey National Library smouldered, and the nearby Religious Affairs Ministry library — home to valued religious texts — was looted and gutted by fire.

Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's two largest cities, still lacked power, water and medical care. Half the medical clinics in Basra had been looted and the children were suffering from diarrhoea, the aid group "Doctors of the World" said in Paris.

In Baghdad, U.S. marines were combing the capital for holdouts on Tuesday, a day after American military officials declared that major coalition combat operations were over. — AP

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