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.
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.
Hundreds of people died in the fighting, including members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
"If you enter Najaf you will see it similar to Stalingrad during the Second World War," said Ghurayfi, who repeatedly evoked the image of Iraq as a tent big enough for all factions. "So let us agree on one word: We should be tolerant with one another." The room swelled with applause.
Sadr's representatives said they also wanted to avoid more fighting. Several of the cleric's aides said a nationwide cease-fire remained in effect while negotiations with Iraqi officials continued on the specifics of converting Sadr's following from an armed insurgency to a peaceful political movement, a crucial step to restoring calm in Iraq's mostly Shiite south.
Both sides said the talks hit a bump this week when Sadr insisted on applying the rules of the Najaf peace deal to Sadr City, a Baghdad slum where Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has repeatedly clashed with U.S. patrols. Sadr's side wants U.S. forces barred from the slum except for reconstruction work, "or by permission of the government. This shows high respect to the government," said Ali Yassiri of Sadr's political office.
Iraqi officials rejected that proposal, but both sides said negotiations would continue.
"We are ready and the door is open," said Abdul Hadi Darraji, another Sadr aide. "The cease-fire is still valid until we announce the political role we intend to play soon."
Another sticking point focuses on how to disarm the militia. Ahmed Shaibani, another Sadr aide, said militia members should be allowed to keep weapons for personal defense "and join the civilian community."
A council member sympathetic to Sadr said the punishing battles in Najaf did much to bring the rebels around.
"They found that if they continue being violent critics, they will have lost a lot of their young people, and this fighting in their cities and destroying Iraq would continue and reconstruction would stop," said Salama Khufaji, a former Governing Council member whose son was killed when her convoy came under attack in May. "That's why the Sadr following began to feel this way."
Correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.