BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq authorities abruptly put off Thursday a national conference of political, religious and civic leaders considered a crucial step on the road to democracy amid disarray over choosing delegates and boycott threats by key factions.

The announcement came a day after a car bombing killed 70 people, the worst single attack since U.S. officials transferred power to an interim Iraqi government.

The national conference, which had been scheduled to start Saturday, appeared to be far behind schedule even before the two-week delay was announced. No venue had been disclosed and there were no outward signs in Baghdad of preparations for the 1,000-person gathering.

Conference organizers insisted they were ready to start, but agreed to the postponement at the request of U.N. officials, who wanted time to encourage wider participation and prepare for the meeting.

Officials hope the conference, which is to elect an interim national assembly, will give Iraqis faith in their government and isolate the insurgents who have carried out a 15-month campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings.

One insurgent group linked to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said Thursday it had kidnapped a Somali truck driver and would behead him if his Kuwaiti company did not stop working in Iraq. Another group threatened to behead one of seven foreign truck drivers it was holding in 24 hours if its string of demands, which included a pullout by their company, were not met.

Also Thursday, a U.S. soldier was killed in clashes north of Baghdad, and a Polish soldier died in a roadside bombing. The American’s death raises the number of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq since the war began to at least 909, according to an Associated Press tally.

Marines and Iraqi troops engaged in a hourslong battle later Thursday with insurgents in the volatile city of Fallujah, the military said. Witnesses reported hearing more than 60 mortar rounds fired toward the eastern edge of the city, where Americans are based, and planes flying overhead.

The military said the fighting began when insurgents attacked a joint patrol of Marines and Iraqi troops with gunfire, mortars and rocket propelled grenades. The troops responded with gunfire, tank fire and aircraft bombing raids, which hit a building the insurgents had fled to, the military reported.

Marines said they suffered no casualties. Four guards working in factories that were bombed were lightly wounded, said Dr. Tha’er Abdullah, of Fallujah General Hospital.

The violence came a day after a car bombing at a police station in Baqouba, north of Baghdad, killed 70 Iraqis. At one of the funerals for the dead, scores of silent men marched through the streets Thursday carrying a coffin holding the body of Kamal Qadouri, while a few men fired Kalashnikovs in the air. When the procession reached Qadouri’s home, women wailed in grief.

Organizers of the national conference had expressed concern that the gathering would be a magnet for terror attacks. But they said Thursday that security worries played no part in their decision to delay.

“We have full confidence in our security organizations,” said Fouad Masoum, head of the conference’s organizing committee.

The three-day conference is to bring together 1,000 delegates from Iraq’s 18 provinces to help choose a 100-member interim assembly with the power to approve the budget, veto executive orders, appoint Cabinet replacements and help guide the country toward elections in January.

Under a law promulgated by the outgoing U.S. occupation authority, the conference was to have been held by the end of July.

Masoum said Thursday that the United Nations had asked for a delay to persuade resistant factions to attend, and the organizers agreed.

The United Nations had previously called for a longer delay; Masoum said Tuesday he had turned them down, saying the conference had to be held by the end of July as “a matter of credibility.”

He did not explain why he had suddenly decided to accede to the request, but problems have increased recently.

Several important groups, including radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement and The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group with links to insurgents, have refused to attend. And on Wednesday, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the first Sunni party to join the now dissolved interim governing council, said it was withdrawing.

Organizers were concerned the conference would lack legitimacy if key leaders boycotted.

The conference was beset by other problems as well.

Some towns did not receive voting forms to choose delegates until late. Infighting over who to send stalled the process in many multiethnic communities. Iraqi media reported that fewer than half the provinces had chosen their delegates just days before the conference was to begin.

AP-ES-07-29-04 1815EDT

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