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IN THE NEWS – April 19, 2003: First Meeting to Form a New Iraqi Government - 2003-04-18

This is the VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS.

On Tuesday, Iraqi political and religious leaders met for the first time to discuss how to form a new government in Iraq. The talks were held near the southern city of Ur – believed to be the oldest known city in civilization.

More than seventy Shiite and Sunni Muslim community leaders, exiled Iraqi activists, tribal leaders and ethnic Kurds took part in the talks. The delegates gathered in tents at Tallil Air Base. British, American and Polish diplomats supervised the heavily guarded meeting.

The Iraqis called for an end to the violence and widespread stealing that have taken place since Saddam Hussein’s government was defeated by an American-led military force.

The goal of the meeting was to take the first steps to form a new Iraqi government in which all citizens are represented. The delegates released a thirteen-point statement following the meeting. The statement said how they plan to establish a federal system with leaders chosen by the Iraqi people -- not by outside forces. The statement said the new Iraqi government would be based on the rule of law, democracy, nonviolence and inclusion of all groups, including women.

Now that fighting has ended throughout most of Iraq, the country is being temporarily administered by the United States. Retired General Jay Garner will supervise the rebuilding under General Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in Iraq.

President Bush’s special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the delegates the United States does not plan to rule Iraq. He said American officials want Iraq to establish its own democratic system based on national traditions and values.

However, the design of such a government remains unclear. About sixty percent of Iraq’s twenty-four-million people are Shiite. Yet, Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-controlled Baath Party repressed them for more than thirty years. Now, at least five Iraqi Shiite groups are competing for influence in Iraq.

Among them is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. This Iranian-based exile group boycotted the talks to protest temporary American military rule. Thousands of supporters of the group and other Iraqis protested the talks in nearby Nasiriyah.

Ahmed Chalabi, head of another Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, also did not attend the meeting. He sent a delegate in his place. The United States has met with this exiled group in the past about a possible Iraqi government. Some people believe the United States wants Mister Chalabi to be the new leader of Iraq.

During the talks, delegates disagreed about how big a part religion would play in the country’s new political structure. They did agree on the need for future talks. The next in a series of similar meetings will take place next week.

This VOA Special English program, IN THE NEWS, was written by Jill Moss.