About 500 Iraqis met in Baghdad on Saturday to set up a national political force free of US influence to push for a handover of sovereignty under the auspices of the United Nations.

The United Iraqi Scholars Group - which appointed a 16-strong leadership panel - has vowed to boycott any political group set up by the US and called for a stronger army than the small force envisioned by the US-led coalition.

After a five-hour conference, the group said its agenda was based on "legitimate resistance to end the occupation" and keep Iraq united.

The group of moderate Shia and Sunni Muslims as well as Kurds also demanded the US-appointed Governing Council should be sidelined.

US has final say

The Governing Council is the Iraqi leadership operating within the US-led occupying authority. But power firmly remains with the US which holds the purse strings and controls the military.

"In previous talks we
told Mr Brahimi about
our desire to politically take part in the transfer of power but on one condition, that it
should not be done
under the shadow of
the occupation"

Shaikh Jawad al-Khalisi,
Shia cleric

Shaikh Jawad al-Khalisi, a senior Shia cleric who will head the group, said it wanted the handover of power to Iraqis on 30 June "done under the umbrella of the United Nations and not the CPA", the US-led occupying authority since last March's invasion.

"In previous talks we told Mr Brahimi about our desire to politically take part in the transfer of power but on one condition, that it should not be done under the shadow of the occupation," said Khalisi.

The demands came as UN special envoy al-Ibrahimi struck a conciliatory note with the Governing Council during a meeting in Baghdad, saying he wanted to work with them before the 30 June shift of power.

IGC members nervous

The Governing Council's Shia members in particular object to the UN's direct involvement in planning the country's next government, and disagree with al-Ibrahimi's belief that a post-30 June interim government should be comprised of technocrats.

Al-Ibrahimi has said Governing Council members should concentrate on fighting for power in elections, scheduled for January next year.

The UN's al-Ibrahimi (L) is under
US pressure to alter his position

Dr Muthana Harith al-Dhari, spokesman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, said: "We will inform Mr Brahimi about our total rejection of the Governing Council which we consider as being designed by the occupation."

The United Iraqi Scholars Group was formed after eight months of planning, and the meeting in Baghdad included representatives of 35 parties.

Political parties

But the Bush administration is pressing al-Ibrahimi to change his proposal for a transitional Iraqi government once self-rule is returned, The New York Times reported on Saturday.

Citing unnamed Iraqi and US officials, the newspaper said instead of a government that was non-political, the US administration was pushing al-Ibrahimi for one that gave prominent roles to people with ties to political parties.

According to The Times, leading Shia and Kurdish political figures have pressed for the change because of their interest in retaining power after the Iraqi Governing Council is dissolved on 30 June.

In particular, the administration is said to be wedded to a large role for Adnan Pachachi, the former foreign minister who has guided the process of writing Iraq's transitional constitution, and to figures tied to political groups loyal to Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, the paper said.

"The government is going to have both technocrats and people of political stature," The Times quotes a senior administration official as saying. "It's important to have both sides in the  government."