The gathering at Ur, attended by about 80 Iraqis, took place the day after the coalition declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq following the fall of most of Tikrit, the power base of Saddam Hussein. It was chaired by General Jay Garner, director of the Office of Reconstruction & Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA), the US Department of Defense unit set up to co-ordinate relief and initial reconstruction work. Also in attendance were Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, and recently-appointed deputy ORHA director Tim Cross, a major-general in the British Army. Australia and Poland, which both supported the US-led coalition, had officials at the meeting.

Representatives of Iraqi groups included: Sheikh Ayad Jamal al-Din, a Shia religious leader from Nasiriyah; Hatem Mukhliss, an Iraqi exile; and Hoshyar Zebari, representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The most striking absentee was Ahmed Chalabi, president of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), who was flown with members of the US-trained Free Iraqi Fighters into Nasiriyah on 9 April. Chalabi has been criticised by other members of the Iraqi opposition for being too close to the US. However, the INC was represented at the meeting. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most prominent Shia exile group, boycotted it. A demonstration in Nasiriyah held at the same time as the meeting and attended by thousands of protesters chanted: ‘No to America. No to Saddam.’

The US, which organised the meeting, played down its significance. ‘It’s critical that the world understands that this is only the fledgling first meeting of what will hopefully be a much larger series of meetings across Iraq,’ said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman at US Central Command. It was an ‘unscripted, free-flowing forum of ideas’ to get Iraqis talking about their desires for the future, he said.

The gathering passed a 13-point resolution (see table) and agreed to meet again at a venue to be confirmed in 10 days’ time.