UR, Iraq – Under a white-and-gold tent at the biblical birthplace of Abraham, the United States assembled Iraqi factions Tuesday and told them it has "absolutely no interest" in ruling Iraq. Some Muslims boycotted the meeting and thousands demonstrated nearby, shouting: "No to America and no to Saddam!"
The gathering of about 80 people in this ancient city on the Euphrates River -- a first step toward creating a postwar government -- ended with an agreement by show of hands to meet again in 10 days to discuss forming an interim authority.
Participants also agreed to a list of 13 points, beginning with the principle that Iraq must be democratic and calling for the dissolution of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
The meeting was dominated by presentations from dozens of Iraqis, including a cleric from Nasiriyah who called for a separation between religion and politics and Iraqi exiles stressing the need for the rule of law.
"One of the bases of democracy is honest differences of opinion," speaker Sheik Sami Azer al Majnoon told the crowd. "At the same time this is also one of the difficulties of democracy."
Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who will head the U.S.-led interim administration in Iraq, opened the conference under a tent in the shadows of the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, a terraced temple platform of the ancient Sumerians.
Garner, wearing a twin American and Iraqi flag pin, turned 65 Tuesday. "What better birthday can a man have than to begin it not only where civilization began but where a free Iraq and a democratic Iraq will begin today?" he asked.
According to the Bible, Abraham migrated from Ur to Canaan, where his son Isaac carried on the Israelite line. Abraham, revered by Muslims as the prophet Ibrahim, also was the father of Ismail, forefather of the Arabs.
White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told the estimated 80 delegates that the United States has "no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq."
"We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values," Khalilzad said.
Participants included Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Arabs from inside Iraq and others who spent years in exile. U.S. officials invited the groups, which picked their own representatives.
Many Iraqis boycotted the meeting to protest U.S. plans to install Garner atop an interim administration. Thousands of Shiites -- Iraq's most populous religious group but repressed under Saddam -- demonstrated in nearby Nasiriyah.
"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government," one Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, said in Iran. "Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization," said Hakim, whose Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is the country's largest Shiite group.
Iraq's Shiite majority has for years chafed under Sunni Muslim dominance, which dates to the early days of what is now modern Iraq. Shiites see the fall of Saddam, a Sunni, as chance to take what they see as their rightful political place. They have shown little patience for negotiations they fear will pressure them to compromise.
At a prewar U.S.-backed meeting in London, Iraqi exiles gave Shiites about half the seats on an advisory board some envisioned as a government-in-waiting -- a breakthrough acknowledgment of Shiites' weight, but not one recognizing their majority status. About a third of Iraq's 24 million people are Sunni; most of the rest are Shiite.
The Shiites are also handicapped by an internal power struggle.
In a sign of the fissures among Shiites and the possible problems facing a new U.S.-led interim administration in Iraq, a mob last week killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shiite cleric opposed to Saddam, and Haider al-Kadar, a cleric loyal to Saddam and widely hated by Shiites. The clerics had been visiting a shrine in southern Iraq to promote Shiite unity.
U.S. officials stressed that Tuesday's meeting was only the first of many -- and their hope that other Iraqis will join the process.
Once selected, the interim administration could begin handing power to Iraqi officials in three to six months, but forming a government will take longer, officials said.
Delegates also discussed the contentious issue of religion's role in society. Sheik Ayad Jamal Al Din, a Shiite religious leader from Nasiriyah, urged delegates to craft a secular government.
"We want an Iraq that is truly democratic in the sense that it looks at each Iraqi citizen as an individual, he said.
"The Islamic community can only flourish in circumstances of freedom which separates religion from politics, so that dictators will no longer be able to speak in the name of Islam."
But Nassar Hussein Musawi, a schoolteacher, disagreed: "Those who would like to separate religion from the state are simply dreaming."
Iraqi exile Hatem Mukhliss quoted President Kennedy's exhortation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and called on Iraqis to write a constitution, establish a legal system and consider what role the army should play.
He asked coalition representatives to address problems of security, electricity and water and help rebuild destroyed and looted hospitals.
"Saddam reduced the country to such a state that it was necessary for people to sell off personal possessions," Mukhliss said. "Now it's time to take our country back."
There are already tensions between the United States and some Iraqi factions.
For example, Kurdish groups appear unwilling to compromise on their demand to expand the border of their autonomous area to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and Kurdish parts of the city of Mosul.
That could pose a problem for Washington because Turkey worries that Kurdish control of Kirkuk could encourage separatist Kurds in Turkey.
Iraqi opposition leaders fear the United States is trying to force Ahmed Chalabi, head of the London-based umbrella Iraqi National Congress, on them as leader of a new Iraqi administration. Chalabi and many other leaders of anti-Saddam groups did not attend Tuesday's meeting but sent delegates.
Hoshyar Zebari, a representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party, called the meeting a "kickoff," and explained the lukewarm response of some of the tribal leaders in attendance this way: "They are still nervous. They don't believe Saddam is gone yet."