Iraqis from both inside and outside of the country are to meet in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya Tuesday to begin work on their country's political future. The meeting comes as the U.S.-led forces begin to shift their focus away from military operations.
The Nasiriya meeting is to be held without the participation of two major factions. One of the leading contenders for the post of leader in a new Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, is not attending. Neither is Iraq's main Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. The group says it is boycotting the meeting because it will not accept an administration imposed by foreigners.
Coalition officials say the meeting is just the start of a new Iraqi political process.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says the dispute over the meeting should not be viewed as a setback to nation-building efforts, but rather as a sign that the political process is already underway. "Look, it's a start and I'm glad politics has broken out, that there is local opposition, that these Shias feel able to express their opinions," he says. "Under the Saddam regime if they'd expressed opinions like that they'd have ended up in the torture chambers in Basra or have ended up dead."
Speaking to reporters at U.S. command headquarters here in Doha ahead of the Tuesday meeting, Mr. Straw also said that while this meeting is U.S. sponsored both the United States and Britain see a role for the United Nations. But he said it will depend on the good faith of the U.N. Security Council members. "Instead of arguing about what has been or what might have been, accept that there's a new reality in Iraq and it is the responsibility of all members of the Security Council but particularly those with vetoes not to play games but to recognize this new reality and move forward," says Mr. Straw.
The United States is stressing that this meeting is only the first step and is not expected to produce major results.
Secretary of State Colin Powell says the participants themselves understand that. "I think most of the groups outside the country and the resistance understand the need for starting in this way, with a modest beginning, so that we begin to have a dialogue."
The focus on Iraq's political future comes as U.S. defense officials begin to scale back military operations in Iraq. "I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over because the major Iraqi units on the ground cease to show coherence," says Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's joint staff. "Tikrit was the last area where we anticipated seeing major combat formations if in fact they were there. There were some sharp fights there but not coherent defense."
General McChrystal said a lot of work remains in Iraq, including the hunt for members of Saddam Hussein's regime, the search for weapons of mass destruction and providing humanitarian assistance. But he confirmed that two American Navy aircraft carriers and the ships in their battle groups will leave the Persian Gulf region later this week and return to their home ports. Air operations have also been scaled back and are now half of their level when the war was at its peak.
Many military units on the ground are shifting their focus to maintaining order and restoring power and water supplies.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration had more strong words Monday for Syria, warning Damascus not to provide safe haven for former leaders of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Secretary of State Powell said Washington will examine possible diplomatic, economic or other measures against Syria, if it fails to cooperate. Other officials have suggested the U.S. government could downgrade diplomatic relations with the Syrian government.