Who got what in Sharm El-Sheikh? Hani Shukrallah
tries to unravel the deals at the first post-invasion International Conference on Iraq
The official transcript of the statement made by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier at the International Ministerial Conference on Iraq, held in closed session in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh on Tuesday, included two passages which were underlined for emphasis. France, which had tried but failed to have non-governmental Iraqi political forces invited to the conference, wished to emphasise the necessity of both "the support and engagement of as many Iraqis as possible for the transition" process in the country, and "the prospect for foreign withdrawal".
These two underscored passages in the French statement may well be seen as a metaphor for the gathering at Sharm El-Sheikh, where an apparent consensus ultimately boiled down to a stubborn variety of emphasis.
Held at foreign ministerial level, the conference brought together the two occupying powers -- the US and the UK -- and the interim Iraqi government they have put in place, with the other G8 states, the Arab and non-Arab nations neighbouring Iraq, China, and the chiefs of a number of major international and regional organisations, including the UN, the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the EU. Iraq's interim Foreign Minister Hochiar Zibari reminded reporters after the meeting that this was the first truly international conference on post-Saddam Iraq, including as it did both "those who supported, and those who opposed" the US-British invasion of the country, or -- as he would have it -- its "liberation from Saddam's tyranny".
Hosted and presided by Egypt, the conference and its final communiqué were hailed by key participants as a triumph of Egyptian diplomacy. According to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, Cairo had upheld two guiding principles in preparing the draft communiqué, negotiating it with the various participants and introducing the necessary amendments. These were "to bar [the influence of] narrow interests", and "transparency". He noted that drafts of the communiqué had been in public circulation for several weeks before the meeting.
Indeed, there was something for everyone at Sharm El-Sheikh on Tuesday, all of which was ingeniously amalgamated in the communiqué; the devil being not so much in the detail as in the italics. These permeated the formal speeches delivered, in camera, at the conference session, the transcripts of which were distributed to reporters, as well as the various press conferences held by delegates afterwards. It was most starkly apparent in three consecutive press conferences held immediately on the heels of the meeting by Abul-Gheit, Zibari and outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thus Egypt's Abul-Gheit chose to emphasise the language in the final communiqué that urged and called upon the interim Iraqi government to broaden participation in the political process and to convene, at the earliest possible date, and in any case before the 30 January election, an inclusive conference for national reconciliation -- the implication of which is that the current process was precisely lacking in such attributes. Similarly, Abul-Gheit, in response to questions from Egyptian and Arab journalists regarding the horrific devastation of Falluja by American troops, emphasised the fact that the communiqué calls on all parties to exercise maximum self- restraint, to avoid excessive use of force and to show respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. He admitted, however, that while halting attacks on civilians had been addressed at the conference, there had not been "full agreement" on the matter.
Zibari's and Powell's statements to the press, on the other hand, were no less true to the communiqué, while at the same time diverging widely in emphasis from those made a few minutes earlier by Abul-Gheit. Thus, they could express warm satisfaction at the conference having "welcomed" the efforts of the interim Iraqi government to pursue an "inclusive and democratic" political process and to "open up to all Iraqi forces that reject violence", as Zibari put it. They could also emphasise the conference's firm condemnation of terrorists and terrorism in Iraq, though Zibari's emphatic reference to "those who would slaughter children on the streets" had had a number of attending journalists, with Falluja ever present to their minds, smirking over which party to the Iraqi carnage he was referring to.
The fundamental sticking points continue to stick, despite the hype over the international consensus achieved in Sharm El-Sheikh this week. These were: the degree of inclusiveness of the Iraqi political process; the question of violence against civilians and respect for international humanitarian law; and last, but by no means least, the ending of the US-British occupation, which since last June's Security Council resolution 1546, has been renamed the "multi-national troop presence". And while the communiqué seemed determined to hedge all bets on these three questions, the statements of the delegates to the conference, however diplomatic and conciliatory, could not have exposed more clearly the deep chasm that continues to exist between the US, Britain and the interim Iraqi government on the one hand, and most of the international community on the other.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal went so far as to "warn against the dangers of the intensification of feelings of frustration, injustice and marginalisation amongst Sunna Arabs in Iraq", which he pointed out, "threaten to transform the elections into an element of divisiveness and fragmentation".
Arguably, as Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa stressed in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly in Sharm El-Sheikh Tuesday evening, there is also "the bigger picture" to be taken into account, and that is the matter of state rebuilding in Iraq. "The situation in Iraq cannot be reduced to just a question of military occupation and resistance," said Moussa. "There is also a descent into chaos, sectarian strife and civil war. These are issues of great concern to neighbouring countries, and to the region as a whole."
Yet while it might be argued, though not conclusively, that a stable Iraqi state represents a common interest for all the participants, including the occupying powers, the real issue remains how to get there. In his own address to the conference, Moussa, characteristically, had pulled few punches. He sarcastically questioned "the wisdom and credibility" of a project that claims to be bringing democracy, peace and prosperity to Iraq, in light of what the people of the region see taking place daily on the ground. And asserting that "what is taking place in Falluja can never provide a basis for social peace in Iraq," he called for a ceasefire in Falluja and all other hot spots throughout Iraq, emphasising -- along with Egypt, France and many other participants -- the urgency of an inclusive national reconciliation conference to precede the elections, the setting of a time frame for the withdrawal of foreign troops, and the allocation of a principal role to the UN in underwriting the Iraqi political process.
But what guarantees do Moussa or the rest of the international community represented at the Sharm conference have that any of their pleas will fall on responsive American, British or Iraqi interim government ears? Other than providing for Egypt, as conference president, to continue consultations with the various parties, no steps were taken to set up a clear and effective follow-up mechanism. Both Powell and Zibari, at their respective press conferences, vowed that the military effort to "eradicate the terrorists" would continue. And indeed, on the ground in Iraq, the carnage continues unabated.
"Indications on the ground give little reason for confidence," Moussa acknowledged in his interview with the Weekly, "but this opportunity [the Sharm El-Sheikh conference] offers plenty of reason for speaking out, honestly and clearly." Then he added, in English, "for whatever it's worth."