By CHARLES J. HANLEY
AP Special Correspondent
Stressing unity in a divided land, more than 200 delegates from inside and outside Iraq met Monday at Saddam Hussein's elaborate convention hall, protected by a ring of U.S. tanks as they searched for agreement on a new government.
Elsewhere, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, thanking U.S. troops for removing Saddam: "You protected our country from a gathering danger and liberated the Iraqi people."
In the north, Kurdish paramilitary forces in Mosul began complying with U.S. Army orders to stop armed patrols at checkpoints to relieve tensions there between Arabs and Kurds, U.S. officials said.
The meeting in Baghdad coincided with Saddam's 66th birthday. For years, April 28 was a national holiday filled with official celebration and enforced adulation of the authoritarian leader, who was "unanimously" endorsed by voters over the years in unopposed "elections."
"Today, on the birthday of Saddam Hussein, let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq," the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, told the delegates.
Shiite and Sunni Muslim clerics in robes, Kurds from the north, tribal chiefs in Arab headdresses and Westernized exiles in expensive suits assembled for the one-day political conference, second in a series expected to extend well into May.
"We hope we can form a unified government, one that reflects the entire spectrum of Iraq," said Ahmad Jaber al-Awadi, a representative of the newly formed Iraqi Independent Democrats Movement.
One prominent exile, Saad al-Bazzaz, said many delegates had discussed the possibility of a "presidential council" rather than naming a single leader for Iraq.
"I'm not expecting one person as president. I'm expecting a presidential council" of three to six members, he said. "We have been discussing this, many of us."
But many focused on the immediate need for security in a country where the ouster of the Saddam government three weeks ago touched off a rampage of looting, arson and general lawlessness.
"The lack of security threatens our newborn democracy. Security must be restored for this experience to survive," Saadoun Dulaimi, a returned exiled politician, told fellow delegates.
In a sign of new cooperation, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iran-based group of Shiite Muslim exiles, sent a low-level delegation to the Baghdad conference. The council had boycotted the first meeting on April 15, and high-ranking members refused to attend Monday's conference in protest of its U.S. sponsorship, said Hamid al-Bayati, a London spokesman for the group.
Coming home after years abroad, Iraqis hugged and kissed as the gathering began. "In Baghdad?" one delegate asked another in disbelief. "Yes, in Baghdad," the other replied.
In the streets, thousands of demonstrators marched through the sun-baked capital calling for unity of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, of Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.
But in a symptom of the disorganization and communications problems that have plagued the U.S. occupation, dozens of delegates couldn't reach the hall immediately. Instead, they drove in circles around traffic-choked central Baghdad, repeatedly blocked by Army checkpoints. The opening was delayed by two hours.
On a downtown street, an Iraqi air force colonel, Hussein al-Khafaji, took note of how different Saddam's birthday was this year.
"Whenever we had those elections for president, everyone voted for him 100 percent," he told a reporter. "And today nothing will happen, and this will prove that none of us liked him, not a one."
On central Saddoun Street, a ragged man carried a placard aloft depicting Saddam with horns and a noose around his neck. "This is your birthday. Shame on you," it read.
In southern Iraq, on the main road north out of Basra, about 50 marchers appeared bearing an effigy of Saddam fashioned from rags. As a crowd gathered, they threw the effigy to the ground, stomped on it and set it aflame.
"No, no, Saddam. Yes, yes, Islam," shouted members of the group, led by a Shiite cleric named Ali al-Rubei.
In Qatar, Rumsfeld said the U.S.-led war in Iraq was a historic success that will influence military doctrine for decades. "Baghdad was liberated in less than a month, possibly the fastest march on a capital in modern military history," Rumsfeld said.
After talks with the United Arab Emirates' defense minister and chief of staff on Sunday, Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks said U.S. military forces were not going to leave the region any time soon. Franks, commander of U.S. troops in the region, said he wanted to continue operations at Camp As Sayliyah, which was completed just before the war began.
In other developments Sunday:
- The U.S. military flexed its political muscle by arresting Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the self-proclaimed mayor of the capital, "for exercising authority which was not his." Al-Zubaidi is a returned exile associated with the opposition Iraqi National Congress.
- Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, Iraq's chief liaison to U.N. weapons inspectors, surrendered to U.S. forces. He was No. 49 on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted figures from the Saddam regime, the six of clubs in the deck of playing cards that listed the fugitives.
- A dozen 55-gallon drums were found in an open field near the northern Iraqi town of Baiji. While initial tests indicated one drum might contain the nerve agent cyclosarin and a blister agent that could be mustard gas, The New York Times reported subsequent tests proved negative