Shi'ite Group to Boycott U.S. Talks on Iraq
By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The main Iraqi Shi'ite opposition group said on Wednesday it would boycott a political meeting the United States is trying to arrange in southern Iraq (news - web sites) next week because of the U.S. military presence.
"We are not going to take part in this meeting in Nassiriya. We think this is part of General Garner's rule of Iraq and we are not going to be part of that project at all," said Hamid al-Bayati, the London representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
The Bush administration has appointed retired Lt. Gen Jay Garner to run civilian affairs in Iraq alongside the U.S. and British military presence.
The United States has identified some 40 Iraqi politicians it wants to take part in preliminary discussions on the political future of the country after the collapse of the Baathist government of President Saddam Hussein (news - web sites).
SCIRI, which is based in Tehran and dominated by Iraqi Shi'ites, is one of the largest single groups in opposition to Saddam. It has taken part in meetings with other groups but has always been wary of cooperation with the United States.
Bayati told Reuters by telephone from London that SCIRI's objection to U.S. plans was that Washington envisaged an interim authority without full sovereignty over the country.
"We could be part of an Iraqi government but we can't be part of a military rule over the country," he said.
"Our understanding of what they are doing now is an Iraqi civil administration under General Garner's supervision for three months, maybe six months, and later on an Iraqi interim authority and then a provisional government. It is not an Iraqi authority with full sovereignty," he added.
The telephone interview was interrupted by noisy celebrations in the background as SCIRI members in London welcomed the collapse of Saddam's authority in Baghdad.
Analysts say the attitude of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority will be crucial to the success of U.S. plans in Iraq.
If Shi'ite clerics and politicians reject the U.S. military occupation, it could be hard for Garner and his future Iraqi allies to govern the country effectively, they say.
Bayati noted that Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has not endorsed the U.S. presence.
Last week Sistani asked his millions of followers to remain neutral in the fighting between U.S. forces and people loyal to Saddam. But he has not issued any fatwas since then.
Bayati said Iraqis would give the United States very little time to hand over full power to Iraqis.
"The Iraqi people would like to see an Iraqi government as soon as possible and they expect the military forces to leave when things settle down. The position we agreed in London (last year) was that an Iraqi government should be established immediately after Saddam's fall," he said.
"So they must leave as soon as possible. I am thinking of weeks rather than months," he added.
SCIRI moved a brigade of fighters into northern Iraq before the United States and Britain invaded Iraq from the south but the fighters have not taken part in the fighting.
It is unclear how much popular support any of the Iraqi exile groups can muster inside the country after more than 30 years under repressive Baathist rule.
The SCIRI leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Hakim, has decided to go home from 23 years in exile in Iran but the organization has not announced a date for his return.