A first step to democracy?

Iraq’s national conference finally chose the country’s first post-Saddam Hussein assembly this week.

After a day of wrangling and confusion on Wednesday, the presiding judges at the conference declared that a government-backed list should be adopted. An alternative list was offered by independent delegates but this was later withdrawn, leading to claims that the 81 members of the new council had only been agreed by default.

The conference, which had drawn more than 1 000 delegates from across Iraq, has been hailed as the country’s first step to democracy.

In total there will be 100 members of the new National Assembly: the 81 approved this week and 19 former members of the former governing council who did not get new jobs in the Iraqi government.

It will serve as a watchdog over the interim government in the run-up to the country’s first national elections, scheduled for next January.

During the conference there were moments of high farce interspersed by long periods of tedium as organisers struggled to explain the complex voting procedures. The conference broke down several times because of walkouts or procedural hitches. It also had to stop for two hours because the lists did not contain enough women candidates to meet the required quota of 25%.

“This is a stitch-up by the big political parties and there is no room for independents,” said Ismael Zayer, a delegate and a Baghdad publisher.

“This conference is the best thing to happen in Iraq since liberation, but if we muck it up now then the future will look even less rosy.”

The exact make-up of the government list was unclear this week, but it must contain a number of candidates from the country’s political parties, ethnic groups and tribes.

The conference, first proposed by the former United Nations envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, is being billed as the start of national dialogue that will embrace Iraq’s disparate ethnic, religious and cultural communities.

But it has been overshadowed by the dire security situation in Najaf and the Shia areas of Baghdad, as well as the nagging insurgency in the mainly Sunni Muslim regions of the country.

Meanwhile, the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, has reportedly accepted a peace deal that could end the violent two-week uprising in Najaf and see his militia leave the city’s Imam Ali Shrine.

Sadr’s spokesperson on Wednesday night confirmed that the cleric had accepted a proposal from Iraq’s national conference to pull his fighters out of the holy city and turn his militia into a political movement.

But there was scepticism about whether Sadr’s offer was genuine — or merely a negotiating tactic to forestall an imminent all-out attack on the shrine by Iraqi government forces, which were fighting the cleric’s militia.

Hours before the apparent deal was announced, Iraq’s Defence Minister, Hazim al-Shaalan, demanded the immediate surrender of the militia and said that his soldiers were preparing for an assault against the cleric’s Mahdi army. Using bellicose language, Al-Shaalan warned that he would “teach them a lesson they will never forget’‘.

Sadr’s apparent acceptance of the peace plan followed his refusal to meet an eight-person delegation from the national conference that had travelled to Najaf to see him on Tuesday night.

Sadr has made contradictory statements in the past and a previous ceasefire collapsed earlier this month. — Â

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