Iraq on Thursday postponed a political convention regarded as a key step toward democracy, as Iraqis reeling from the latest grisly bombing bemoaned their government's inability to end kidnappings and violence.
Preparations for the convention, which was to gather 1,000 delegates Saturday to choose a national assembly, stalled after accusations that the selection process was chaotic and unfair. "The Iraqi people really do not know what is going on in this conference," complained Jawad Maliki, a spokesman for the Dawa party, a prominent Shiite Muslim organization.
Organizers of the event said they had postponed the meeting for two weeks at the request of the United Nations. Just two days ago, Iraqi officials had vowed they would start the conference by the end of July to meet a deadline set by the outgoing American occupation authority and to dispel any suspicions that national elections scheduled for January would not take place on time.
The delay came as the continuing violence brought an appeal from the prime minister for help from the outside.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and with officials in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, endorsed a plan to gather security forces from Muslim countries to help stop the violence in Iraq and urged Islamic countries to "stand as one group" against terrorists.
The violence continued Thursday, as kidnappers holding seven foreign drivers -- three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian -- threatened to kill one Friday unless their employer stopped work in Iraq. The driver was shown in a videotape, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and kneeling with a gun to his head.
Five new kidnap victims -- four Jordanians and a Somali -- were shown in videotapes aired Thursday.
Military authorities, meanwhile, announced the deaths of a 1st Infantry Division soldier whose patrol came under fire Thursday in Hawija, north of Baghdad, and of two U.S. Marines and a Polish soldier killed Wednesday in fighting in western Iraq.
[In Fallujah, at least nine Iraqis were killed and 16 others injured in fierce clashes between U.S. forces and gunmen overnight, a doctor at Fallujah general hospital said on Friday, the Reuters news agency reported.]
Iraqis interviewed on the street expressed disappointment that the interim government, which took office June 28, had been unable to stop attacks such as the suicide bombing Wednesday in Baqubah that killed 70 Iraqis. The same day, fighting south of Baghdad left nearly 40 dead, and kidnappers announced the execution of two Pakistani hostages.
"God cries over what happened yesterday, and the army and police cannot stop it," said Edris Khader, 34, making aluminum doors in a small shop in Baghdad.
Officials defended the government's record.
"From Day One, we said this thing will take some time," Sabah Kadhim, a senior adviser for the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, said in an interview. "We cannot imagine we will take care of this problem in a month. Six months is not enough."
"I am sure these bombings and kidnappings will continue," acknowledged Georges Sada, the prime minister's spokesman. But he said the growing strength of Iraqi security forces had forced opponents to stop direct confrontations and change tactics to kidnappings and car bombings.
"For sure, it's a cowardly tactic. They have changed because they have no more chance to oppose our forces," he said.
The postponement of the convention was an abrupt turnaround. On Tuesday, the national conference chairman, Fuad Masoum, had rejected the request by the United Nations to postpone the gathering, in which delegates were to choose 100 members of a national assembly that would perform a legislative function in the government until national elections are held in January. However, President Ghazi Yawar said the same day that the scheduled start of the convention was "not holy" and could be postponed.
Masoum told journalists Thursday that he "wasn't distressed by the delay." He said the conference was postponed so that organizers could continue negotiations with various groups about their participation. "This isn't negative, but it is an admission that we insist the conference has to represent all parts of Iraq," he said. "We needed to reach agreement on some issues. . . . I think we can solve these problems in two weeks."
Some political groups said they reluctantly accepted the delay because a number of important groups had not yet agreed to participate. Maliki said his Dawa party had originally believed that a delay would "send a message to terrorist forces who want to destroy the political mission in Iraq that their operations had succeeded in creating problems."
Other parties were far more critical, saying the postponement was a serious mistake and would throw into disarray the entire political process set up by the outgoing U.S. administration here.
Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, complained of excessive U.N. meddling in Iraq. "The delay will encourage the terrorists to conduct more terror and embolden Baathists to conduct more sabotage," he said, referring to Iraqis loyal to former president Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party.
"Some parties and groups have rejected the process and do not accept its legitimacy. Shall we put an obstacle before the process just to satisfy them?" said another INC official, Hairer Mousawi.
One of the groups that have refused to participate in the conference is the organization led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. In a telephone interview from the city of Najaf, a spokesman for Sadr, Ahmed Shaibani, said the group "expected the conference will fail" because the process for choosing delegates was not fair.