BAGHDAD, Sept. 1 -- Iraq's interim National Council convened for the first time on Wednesday, taking what one delegate called "the first steps in a democratic journey."
While participants spoke forcefully about continuing negotiations to persuade insurgents to work within a political framework, mortar explosions echoed outside the meeting and a delegate arrived in a convoy riddled with bullet holes after an early morning ambush.
Muhammed Bahr Uloum, left, a cleric and member of the interim National Council, arrives at the body's opening session.
(Karim Sahib -- AP)
In another development, seven kidnapped foreign truck drivers, from India, Kenya and Egypt, were reported released after six weeks in captivity. The men were said to be on their way to Kuwait after a video sent to news agencies showed a masked kidnapper shake hands with each of them and hand them copies of the Koran and a few religious brochures. A Turkish trucker was freed separately.
Late Wednesday, U.S. forces said they had launched an attack in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, on a safe house linked to members of the terrorist network run by Abu Musab Zarqawi, one of the most wanted insurgents in Iraq. The attack killed nine civilians, including three children, hospital officials said, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. military said it carried out a "precision attack" on members of Zarqawi's group, who earlier in the day had executed and buried a man after pulling him from the trunk of a car south of the city, largely controlled by Muslim extremists. "Multiple sources of Iraqi and coalition intelligence provided the basis for this operation," a U.S. military statement said.
At the National Council meeting, participants discussed measures to quell the fighting.
"Iraq is now breaking down, and you are the ones who can heal the wounds," Muhammad Rida Ghurayfi, a Shiite cleric close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top spiritual figure in Iraq, told his fellow council members minutes after they swore an oath to serve until nationwide elections are held early next year.
"Shells and mortars exploding around us will not make us afraid," said Hamid Majid Musa, head of the Iraqi Communist Party. "We want to build a strong establishment."
The mortar shells landed outside the convention center where most of the 100 members of the makeshift parliament were elected about two weeks ago, in a gathering that also drew artillery fire. The U.S. military, which guards the fortified International Zone that includes the hall, said one person was injured in the latest barrage.
A convoy carrying Ahmed Chalabi, a founder of the Iraqi National Congress and onetime favorite of the Bush administration, was hit by gunfire as Chalabi traveled from Najaf to the meeting in Baghdad. Two of Chalabi's bodyguards were wounded, one seriously, but Chalabi said he did not know whether the attack was aimed specifically at him.
The attack took place on a notorious stretch of highway where two French journalists were kidnapped last week. Urgent French government efforts to release the pair continued Wednesday, as another deadline from their kidnappers approached.
Chalabi, who said the National Council was intended to "fortify sovereignty," left the inaugural session to appear before an Iraqi judge investigating allegations of counterfeiting. During a break in the morning session, Chalabi described the case as "a summons, which I will respond to," and said "nobody is above the law in Iraq."
The Central Criminal Court judge who issued the warrant, Zuhair Maliky, said Chalabi presented evidence to refute the counterfeiting charges but the judge refused to provide details. "The investigation is continuing," Maliky said. "A final decision will be made later."
The National Council's first official act was to elect a president, Fouad Masoum, the Kurdish politician who organized the conference that elected 81 of the 100 members. (The 19 others were drawn from the now-defunct Governing Council appointed by American L. Paul Bremer when he was administrator of Iraq.) The body was established chiefly to check the powers of the executive branch led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Speeches on Wednesday included calls to expand participation in the council to include factions that have rejected the interim government as a tool of the United States, which established the governing apparatus before returning sovereignty on June 28.
No major party from Iraq's Sunni Muslim population agreed to become part of the council, which is dominated by the five parties that cooperated with the U.S.-led occupation. Also refusing to participate was Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric whose militia has clashed repeatedly with U.S. forces and Iraqi security officers for 10 months, climaxing in a pitched battle for control of the holy city of Najaf that lasted most of August.