RAY SUAREZ: Today's gathering took place at a heavily guarded convention hall in Baghdad. It's the second meeting organized by the U.S. to begin the process of creating a democratic Iraq. The first was held two weeks ago in a tent in southern Iraq. Today nearly three times as many delegates attended-- about 300 Shiite and Sunni Muslim clerics, Kurds, tribal chiefs, and exiles were there. Iraq's postwar administrator, Jay Garner, pledged to help build democracy in the war ravaged nation.
LT. GEN. JAY GARNER: The reason I'm here is to create an environment in Iraq which will give us a process to start a democratic government and begin that process so that we can have a government that represents the freely elected will of the people.
RAY SUAREZ: Some delegates came from an Iran-based Shiite group that had boycotted the first meeting. Differences over Washington's role in the new Iraq emerged with calls for the U.S. to leave quickly. And outside the hall, thousands of Shiite Muslims protested the meeting saying their views had been sidelined by the Americans.
MAN: We want representation of the Iraqi people, just that, not a government formed by the American administration. Jay Garner, who is Jay Garner to form the government? Does he have the right to form this government to rule the Iraqi people, do you think that?
RAY SUAREZ: Today's meeting ended after ten hours. The delegates issued a statement calling for a national conference to be held within four weeks for Iraqis to choose an interim government. In a speech to Iraqi Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, today, President Bush pledged to let Iraqis to shape their own government, but also said Iraq would be democratic.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Whether you're Sunni or Shia or Kurd or Chaldean or Assyrian or Turkman or Christian or Jew or Muslim ( Cheers and applause ) -- no matter what your faith, freedom is God's gift to every person in every nation. ( Applause ) As freedom takes hold in Iraq, the Iraqi people will choose their own leaders and their own government. America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture. Yet we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected. ( Applause )
RAY SUAREZ: For more on today's meeting in Iraq, we turn to Newsweek correspondent Rod Nordland in Baghdad. Rod, welcome.
Was there a better cross- section, better representation of the Iraqi people at this latest meeting?
ROD NORDLAND: Well, there were more of them. There were some 300 delegates. And there probably was a broader cross-section than the 70 who showed up in Nasiriyah. But there were still demonstrations in the streets here by people who felt they weren't represented. SCIRI, a major Shia group was represented at a very low level. In fact, some of their leaders said they were not in fact at the meeting. Chalabi's people from the Iraqi National Congress went there, but whether or not he himself did is still not clear, so it's pretty much of a mixed picture.
RAY SUAREZ: That SCIRI that you referred to, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, when you say a low-level delegation, were they silent at the meeting, or did they speak out about their desire to have Iraq become an Islamist nation?
ROD NORDLAND: No, they didn't. They did speak out about the issues of such a security that concerned everybody. But the position they've been taking is a very soft one. They're not trying to provoke the United States with talk of an Islamic republic. In fact, none of the Shia groups are openly. They very much want to get in on the dialogue and to see some sort of hand over power. But it's no secret that that's what they would want in the end.
RAY SUAREZ: The first meeting in Nasiriyah was... looked over here like a "get acquainted, clear the air, stake out your territory" kind of meeting, where people just showed themselves. At this latest meeting, was there something more systematic going on, where you could see the steps toward a government emerging from these conferences?
ROD NORDLAND: No, I don't think so. I think at this point, they're just still talking in a background briefing with some of the American and British officials that are involved in organizing it. The point they had to make was that... well, they basically were downplaying, dialing back expectations and saying this is the first of many meetings, it's a long process, and this is... we're talking about a long process leading to an interim government. So they're not looking forward to any breakthrough soon. And I think they're very aware that this is a very... still a very unrepresentative group. It's top-heavy with exiles. Exiles are not very much appreciated by most Iraqis. In fact, many of them are downright hated, particularly the Iraqi National Congress and Chalabi. So it has a long way to go, and I think they hope that this is just the first step in trying to build something.
RAY SUAREZ: How would you describe American interim administrator Jay Garner's role at this meeting?
ROD NORDLAND: Well, he chaired the meeting, and he had his people described themselves as facilitators. But they're just getting started, too, and they realize they have an enormous task in front of them. They're coming to it a bit late. There's some friction between them and the U.S. military itself. And there's an awful lot of problems with Iraqis who don't really accept the idea of any U.S. role here. Those Iraqis were not very much represented at this meeting, but they were certainly out in the streets, and I spent the morning going around Baghdad talking to people about this process, and it was hard to find anybody who was very pleased about it or very optimistic about it.
RAY SUAREZ: When you talk about the desire for security, when you talk about suspicion of the exiles, are those the kinds of things that people speak about openly in this meeting, or is it so polite to a fault that nobody really gets to the nitty-gritty of what they want from each other and what they may resent about each other?
ROD NORDLAND: Yeah, I don't think you'd describe it as polite. It was a pretty raucous gathering. There was a lot of high emotions, a lot of strong expressed opinions. But there was that element of let's not be too insulting to our hosts, and while people expressed the desire for an Iraqi government and so on, they are not coming down on the coalition. But this was a pre-selected group. It was Garner and his people who selected the members, and the kind of people who would voice those views really weren't represented at that meeting.
RAY SUAREZ: Did you get a chance to talk to any of the delegates when the meeting broke up?
ROD NORDLAND: We did talk to some of them while it was going on and so on, but it was difficult to get a read from just a few of them. In mean, basically... in fact, one of Garner's people said it best, I think. Most of the people at this meeting were essentially representing themselves, and it's a long way from being any kind of body that represents a cross-section of interest in Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Do the street demonstrations show signs of being large enough, loud enough, extensive enough that they may call into question the value of what's going on inside the room, when you see what's going on out on the street?
ROD NORDLAND: Well, no, they weren't really that large. But I think that's partly because the idea of demonstrating in the streets is still something new. I think a lot of people would expect coalition forces to come down on them if they did that, so they'd be reluctant to attend.
You know, today was Saddam's 66th birthday. Usually this is a day full of parades and demonstrations in favor of Saddam, and a day off from work, and even a lot of extra pay for people, especially Ba'athist Party members, and none of that took place. And also, the way the occupation forces have managed things in the city make it very difficult for a large demonstration to take place. There are lots of roadblocks, lots of restrictions on movement. In fact, the meeting itself was held so far from any kind of access by the population that it was even hard for some of the delegates to get into it. It took us something like two and a half hours to get to the meeting. So there weren't going to be any big crowd scenes in front of it, and I think that was the intention.
RAY SUAREZ: Newsweek's Rod Nordland in Baghdad, thanks for joining us.
ROD NORDLAND: My pleasure.