UR, Iraq - Representatives from some of Iraq's many factions met Tuesday in the biblical birthplace of the prophet Abraham for a U.S.-sponsored forum to begin shaping the country's postwar government, but some Shiite Muslim groups boycotted and protested the gathering.
The meeting took place at Tallil air base, close to the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, a terraced-pyramid temple of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. Participants included Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites from inside the country as well as others who have spent years in exile. U.S. officials invited the groups, but each picked their own representatives.
However, many Iraqis boycotted the meeting in opposition to U.S. plans to install retired Gen. Jay Garner as head of an interim administration. Thousands of Shiites demonstrated in nearby Nasiriyah, chanting "No to America and no to Saddam!"
"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government. Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, one of the leaders of al-Daawa Party, an influential Shiite group, turned down his invitation.
"We have our reservations against attending a meeting called for by a military side," he said. "We don't know who is taking part in the meeting, their political ideology or their political identity and background. We don't know the exact aim of the meeting."
Overall, he said, foreign intervention that is "exerting pressure on certain Iraqi opposition groups and favoring others" would weaken the Iraqi groups.
U.S. officials hope more Iraqis join the process over time.
"It's critical that the world understand that this is only the fledgling first meeting of what will hopefully be a much larger series of meetings across Iraq," said Jim Wilkinson, spokesman at U.S. Central Command.
A national conference is planned ultimately to select the interim administration, perhaps within weeks, said a senior U.S. official, speaking 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 Maj. Gen. Tim Cross, the top British member of Garner's team.
"Will we get a complete government in place in that time? I doubt it," Cross said. "One has to go through the process of building from the bottom up, allowing the leadership to establish itself, and then the election process to go through and so forth. That full electoral process may well take longer."
Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance is charged with 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.
About 100 Iraqis were expected at the meeting, half from inside Iraq, half exiles. The moderator was Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House envoy to Iraq. Garner was also expected, along with representatives from Britain, Australia and Poland - countries that contributed forces to the coalition.
Wilkinson stressed that the meeting was an "unscripted, free-flowing forum of ideas" designed to get Iraqis talking about what they want for the future.
There are already tensions between the United States 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 United States, because Turkey worries that Kurdish control of Kirkuk could lead one day to aspirations for independence, which could 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.
Chalabi was the first top Iraqi opposition leader to be airlifted by the U.S. military into southern Iraq as the fighting wound down, and he and his group's top leaders plan to meet soon in Baghdad. U.S. officials said he was brought in because he offered forces to the coalition.
Neither Chalabi nor many other leaders of anti-Saddam groups were expected at Tuesday's meeting.
The Iraqis protesting the conference said it did not represent their interests. The protesters held banners written in English and Arabic saying the "Hawza," or the Shiite religious seminary in Najaf, represents them.
Even some of those at the meeting said they did not want Garner leading the interim administration.
"We will press for any Iraqi civilian administration regardless of what the Americans say. An administration by Garner is not acceptable," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an Iraqi physician and opposition activist.
He said American officials have outlined what Garner's administration would look like: Each ministry would be headed by an American, either military or civilian. Each minister would have two American deputies and eight American advisers, plus four Iraqi advisers from inside the country and four Iraqi exiles.
Still other Iraqi exiles who weren't invited to the meeting said they were concerned with how it went.
Saad Saleh Jabur, leader of the London-based Free Iraqi Council - the oldest Iraqi opposition group in exile - said he hoped the meeting leads to the selection of "technocrats to run the country in cooperation with the allied forces, mainly in the fields of security and health."
"We want the technocrats to work for several months or less than a year until circumstances are ripe for holding free elections," he said. "We are against choosing politicians to run the country at this stage because the politicians would ruin things."