UR, Iraq - Under a white-and-gold tent at the biblical birthplace of the prophet Abraham, the United States assembled Iraqi factions on Tuesday and told them it has "absolutely no interest" in ruling Iraq.
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Yet the gathering of about 80 people in this ancient city on the Euphrates River, a first step to creating a postwar government, reflected the obvious difficulties of the task: Some Shiite Muslims boycotted and thousands demonstrated nearby, shouting: "No to America and no to Saddam!"
The session ended with an agreement by show of hands to meet again in 10 days to discuss forming an interim authority. Participants also agreed to a list of 13 points, beginning with the principle that Iraq must be democratic and also calling for Saddam Hussein's Baath party to be dissolved.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who will head the U.S.-led interim administration in Iraq, opened the conference under a tent at Tallil air base - white on the outside, gold on the inside - close to the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, a terraced temple platform of the ancient Sumerians.
Garner, who wore a twin American and Iraqi flag pin, turned 65 on Tuesday. "What better birthday can a man have than to begin it not only where civilization began but where a free Iraq and a democratic Iraq will begin today?" he said.
Both the Bible and the Koran, Islam's holy book, tell of Abraham's two sons migrating from Ur - Isaac westward to Canaan to sire the Jewish race and through it Christianity, Ishmael to the Arabian peninsula to lay Islam's foundations.
White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told delegates that the United States has "no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq."
"We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values," Khalilzad said.
Participants included Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites from inside the country and others who spent years in exile. U.S. officials invited the groups, which picked their own representatives.
But many Iraqis boycotted the meeting in opposition to U.S. plans to install Garner atop an interim administration. Thousands of Shiites - who constitute Iraq's most populous religious group but were repressed under Saddam - demonstrated in nearby Nasiriyah.
"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "Anything other than this tramples (on) the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization."
Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority has for years chafed at the political dominance of Sunni Muslims, which dates to the early days of what is now modern Iraq. Shiites have seen the fall of Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, as an opportunity to take what they see as their rightful political place and have shown little patience for negotiations at which they fear they will be pressured to compromise.
In negotiations before the war, Iraqi exiles at a London meeting backed by the United States gave Shiites about half the seats on an advisory board some envisioned as a government-in-waiting - a breakthrough acknowledgment of Shiite's weight, but not one recognizing their majority status. About a third of Iraq's 24 million people are Sunni Muslim and most of the rest are Shiite Muslim.
The Shiites are also handicapped by a power struggle within their own community.
In a sign of the fissures among Shiites and of the difficulties that the new U.S.-led interim administration in Iraq could face, a mob last week killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shiite cleric opposed to Saddam, and Haider al-Kadar, a cleric loyal to Saddam and widely hated by Shiites, as they paid a joint visit to a shrine in southern Iraq in an attempt to promote Shiite unity.
U.S. officials stressed that Tuesday's meeting was just the first of many such meetings in Iraq. They hope other Iraqis will join the process.
Once selected, the interim administration could begin handing power to Iraqi officials within three to six months, but forming a government will take longer, officials said.
The delegates also discussed the contentious issue of religion's role in society. Sheik Ayad Jamal Al Din, a Shiite religious leader from Nasiriyah, urged the delegates to craft a secular government. But Nassar Hussein Musawi, a schoolteacher, disagreed: "Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming," he said.
Iraqi exile Hatem Mukhliss quoted President John F. Kennedy's exhortation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and called on Iraqis to write a constitution, establish a legal system and consider what role the army should play.
He asked coalition representatives to address problems of security, electricity and water in Iraq and help rebuild destroyed and looted hospitals.
"Saddam reduced the country to such a state that it was necessary for people to sell off personal possessions," Mukhliss said. "Now it's time to take our country back."
There are already tensions between the United States and some Iraqi factions.
For example, 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 in turn encourage separatist Kurds in Turkey.
Iraqi opposition leaders fear the United States is trying to force Ahmed Chalabi, head of the London-based umbrella Iraqi National Congress, on them as leader of a new Iraqi administration. Neither Chalabi nor many other leaders of anti-Saddam groups attended Tuesday's meeting, but they sent delegates.
And even some of those at the meeting said they did not want Garner leading the interim administration.
"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.