True||Black-turbaned sheikhs, women activists, former dissidents, royalty and even a partisan of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rubbed shoulders in what has been billed as Iraq's first step toward democracy. ||

BAGHDAD: Black-turbaned sheikhs, women activists, former dissidents, royalty and even a partisan of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rubbed shoulders in what has been billed as Iraq's first step toward democracy.

Iraq's national conference, which got under way Sunday, has all the ingredients to be an extraordinary experiment in pluralist politics for a country that lived under a police state for 35 years.

But if first day proceedings are any indication, the fighting in Najaf - revered by the country's majority Shiites - poor preparation and charges by many delegates of behind the scenes manipulation may ultimately render this foreign-inspired gathering just a colorful photo opportunity.

In addition to being one big talk fest, or in some cases a chance to vent frustrations, the conference has been tasked with forming a 100-member interim national council that would have some legislative powers until the country holds national elections in January 2005.

As delegates arrived inside the convention center in the capital's heavily-protected Green Zone, which includes the US Embassy and the seat of the interim government, they were handed a black leather portfolio containing pens, a yellow pad and material about the conference's sessions.

Timid at first, many of the delegates from the country's 18 provinces stuck to others that looked like them or shared the same background.

Some women shrouded in black huddled around a plastic table on the first floor as a white-turbaned sheikh mentored them without making eye contact, while other elegantly-coiffed delegates relished the chance to parade in their best finery and to air their views.

"I am ecstatic to be here today," says Zakia Khalifa, a leading activist, as she went into an impassioned defense of the merits of a new law that grants women at least 25 percent of all public postings.

Seated nearby, Zakia Hakki, Iraq's first woman judge appointed in 1959, shakes her head and smiles.

"We are thirsty for democracy, but we live in a mirage," she says as a black headscarf drapes over her head.

She explains that holding the national conference and forming the Parliament-like national council should have taken place before power was handed over in June by the now-dissolved US-led occupation to the caretaker government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The idea of the conference was crafted under the occupation with the blessing of the UN and enshrined in the country's so-called Transitional Administration Law, an interim set of governing laws and a blueprint for preparing for elections and drafting a Constitution in 2005.

Hakki says she also disagrees with the way the national council will be chosen, with 81 selected through voting lists and 19 appointed from the defunct Governing Council that was created right after the US-led invasion in 2003 and served until early June. "A quarter of these people are just inheriting privileges bestowed upon them by the occupation," she says. "I am thankful America liberated us from Saddam Hussein, but I resent how it has been dealing with Iraqis since then."

Hakki, a Kurd, fled to the US in 1996 after both her husband and brother were killed by Saddam Hussein's henchmen for speaking out against the regime's oppressive policies.

But some former Governing Council (GC) members attending the conference feel they are owed a say in the future of Iraq after battling Saddam Hussein's regime for years from exile.

"We risked our own lives," says Songul Chapook, a member of Iraq's Turkmen minority.

Samir Sumaidy, also a former GC member, is guaranteed a seat in the interim legislator, but he is unhappy about how the process has been rolling so far.

He says many delegates were removed from the list of attendees at the last minute at the behest of the UN to make way for those the world body thought should attend to make the gathering more representative.

"It is regrettable, but what can we do, we must move forward," says the smartly-dressed Sunni politician.

Away from the workings of the conference and even before a national council is even created, many delegates, particularly the Shiite ones, want to use the event as a platform to condemn the US military's heavy-handed approach in dealing with the insurgency and the Sadr's militia.

Over 100 delegates threatened to walk out of the conference if the government did not end the US-led assault on Sadr's militia holed up in Najaf, before some moderate Shiites intervened to formulate a formal request to Allawi that also criticized militia presence in the city.

By Sam Dagher, Agence France Presse