Explosions rattle national conference as leaders struggle along path to democracy

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The Independent Online

Mortar bombs rained down just a few hundred yards from where Iraq's path to democracy was being plotted in Baghdad yesterday, serving a grim reminder that the country remains in a state of near anarchy.

Mortar bombs rained down just a few hundred yards from where Iraq's path to democracy was being plotted in Baghdad yesterday, serving a grim reminder that the country remains in a state of near anarchy.

Insurgents fired at the meeting where Iraqi leaders gathered to pick an interim national assembly yesterday, killing at least two people. The Interior Ministry said three mortar bombs hit a taxi and bus station on the edge of the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where delegates had gathered.

At least two more blasts later echoed from the area, although the cause was unknown.

The three-day conference, attended by 1,300 delegates, was not interrupted, although explosions rattled windows.

The attacks came amid the growing tension in Najaf and a series of other outbreaks of violence across Iraq.

The mortar strike on the Green Zone came despite massive security, curfews around the zone, and checkpoints. It is thought that at least 17 people were injured.

Speaking at the conference, the interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, said that Iraq needed to push on trying to create democracy after decades of brutal rule under Saddam Hussein. "Your presence here today is the biggest challenge to the forces of darkness that want to tear this country apart. This is not the end of the road, it is the first step on the way to democracy," Mr Allawi said in opening remarks.

The political and religious leaders at the three-day conference will choose a 100-member assembly, or national council, to oversee the interim government until elections are held in January.

The conference has been beset by boycotts from key players such as Muqtada Sadr and the Muslim Clerics Association, an influential grouping of Sunni religious leaders. Some Shia leaders threatened to withdraw because of the fighting in Najaf.

The conference was due to open in late July but was delayed after the United Nations demanded more time for preparations. Some delegates have accused the government of stacking the slate with supporters of Mr Allawi.

"The political parties in power now have the overwhelming majority of delegates. They left no room for independents," said Mohammed Bahr Uloum, a leading Shia cleric and a former president of the now defunct Iraqi Governing Council.

Iraqi officials have insisted that problems involved in getting the political conference off the ground would not mean January's landmark elections would also be delayed, even though the spectre of violence hangs over the polls.

The conference brings together delegates from across Iraq, attempting to represent the country's political parties, non-governmental groups and religious and tribal bodies. Once chosen, the national council will have the power to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve Iraq's budget for 2005, and appoint a new prime minister or president should either resign or die in office.

Despite the boycotts, 70 different groups have agreed to participate, the conference's chairman, Fuad Masoum, said. "The movements that boycott this conference are free to do that, but that doesn't cause the conference to lose its legitimacy," he added.

Helicopters flew overhead and 5m-tall concrete barriers blocked the entrance to the Green Zone. Bridges leading to the area were barricaded with concrete, and Iraqi police checked cars as they slowly moved by. Delegates themselves went through metal detectors and were frisked.

The conference was intended to give Iraq's diverse ethnic and political groups - some of which may have been left out of the interim government - a voice in the country and to move the nation toward democracy.

"The challenge before you is great," Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, a UN envoy, told the delegates. "But these are things you can and will achieve, because all Iraqis share an ancient civilisation.

"Yours is the land that gave birth to the first laws of society, accordingly Iraq is surely able to build a society that adheres to the rule of law and shuns violence," he said.