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Iraqis Discuss Future Government in 'Big Tent' Meeting

By Kathleen T. Rhem and Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 15, 2003 – Iraqi representatives and American officials met today in Nasiriyah, Iraq, for the first time to begin the process of forming an interim government for that country.

"The purpose is to begin a dialogue with Iraqis on the future of their country, to build momentum for the formation of an Iraqi interim authority, and to help pave the way for a free Iraqi government that will eventually be chosen by the Iraqi people," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon briefing today.

The meeting included senior American diplomats Zal Khalilzad, the president's personal representative to Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Kuwait, as well as retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who is the head of the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Iraqi opposition leaders from inside and outside Iraq were present.

Rumsfeld said the meeting was designed to begin the process of forming an interim government led by Iraqis that would serve a two-fold purpose: allowing the Iraqis to have "an immediate role" in governing their own country and "laying the foundations" for a permanent Iraqi government.

The secretary said a free society is about "more than just elections" and functioning institutions. "Free nations across the world have different institutions that reflect their unique cultures and their traditions," he said.

Rumsfeld and other defense leaders had made the same points when Afghanistan was forming its own government through a loya jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting of village elders. He has often said it is particularly appropriate that the Afghans chose a process that is uniquely Afghan to form their representative government.

The secretary said the initial Iraq meeting involved "a big tent" approach. Any interim government formed in this process would be temporary and a "stepping stone" to a future, permanent government.

The process will "involve Iraqis from all walks of life" and will be "open to participation by new leaders from across the country as they emerge from the shadow of Saddam Hussein's repression," Rumsfeld said.

He downplayed the significance of media reports that Shiite minority groups were boycotting the meeting to protest American involvement, noting that people can protest in free societies. "Some people don't vote in our country," he noted.

"On the other hand," Rumsfeld added, "if they decide they want to have an influence and an effect on (forming a government), they'll decide to become a part of that process."

In other news, Rumsfeld confirmed U.S. forces had been told to stop flow of oil in a pipeline from Baghdad to Damascus, Syria, that was in violation of U.N. sanctions.

"I am hopeful that they have shut it off, and I have heard that that has happened," he said.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers added that coalition forces didn't destroy the pipeline, they shut it off using technical advice from engineers. "They would not destroy the pipeline or any other infrastructure," he said.

Rumsfeld said he was grateful that seven American POWs have been recovered. "But even as we celebrate, we note that there are four U.S. service members whose whereabouts are still unknown," he said.

The secretary also said U.S. investigators are probing for coalition service members still missing from 1991 many Kuwaitis and one American. "We will continue to work to find them until all have been accounted for," he said.

Coalition forces now control Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and only a few Iraqi cities remain contested, Rumsfeld said.

Coalition forces are now going back to the smaller cities and towns they initially bypassed to deal with any regime forces that remain. "We will continue these efforts until every vestige of regime forces has been removed," he said.

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