The talks concluded with an agreement to reconvene in 10 days.
U.S. Central Command released a 13-point statement at the end of the meeting outlining key goals for the rebuilding effort, the first being “Iraq must be democratic.”
Other points from the statement include that the Ba’ath political party must be dissolved and that Iraqis must choose their leaders and not have them imposed from the outside.
White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told the meeting delegates that the U.S. has “no intention of ruling Iraq.”
“We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values,” Khalilzad said. “I urge you to take this opportunity to cooperate with each other.”
The meeting was designed to bring together dozens of otherwise divided Iraqi community leaders and exile figures to assess the country’s future government and reconstruction efforts. But the forum has met challenges, primarily from groups who oppose U.S. plans to install retired Army General Jay Garner as head of an interim administration in Iraq.
Garner is head of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for postwar Iraq and is expected to preside over the coordination of humanitarian aid and the rebuilding of the country’s badly damaged infrastructure.
Before the talks began at the Tallil Air Base near Nasiriya in southern Iraq, thousands of Iraqis took to the city’s streets, saying they wanted to rule themselves and chanting, “No to America, No to Saddam,” according to a Reuters report.
A number of Shiite Muslim representatives decided to boycott the meeting, a move that led many of the demonstrators to take to the streets to protest the conference.
“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,” Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite Muslim opposition group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq told the Associated Press.
Garner, who chaired Tuesday’s forum, expressed concern at the slow start of the discussion on Iraq’s transition.
“My fear right now is every day we delay we’re probably losing some momentum and there’s perhaps some vacuums in there getting filled that we won’t want filled,” Garner told USA Today.
The meeting was scheduled to include some 100 Iraqis, including members of opposition groups, such as the Iraqi National Congress, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, that have supported the U.S. stance against Saddam.
Local leaders, representatives from Sunni and some Shiite Muslim factions and exiles who have not been in Iraq for several years were also expected to attend.
Garner’s reconstruction team will oversee the gradual transition of power to Iraqi officials, a process that could take three to six months. However, the installation of a new government could take longer, a British member of the task force told the Associated Press.
“Will we get a complete government in place in that time? I doubt it,” British Maj. Gen. Tim 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.”