Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 October 2005
Issue No. 765
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A message of solidarity

Arab League assistant secretary-general tells Dina Ezzat about his visit to Baghdad and about Amr Moussa's plans for his upcoming trip to Iraq

Ahmed Bin Heli

It has been described as a failed mission by some who argue that Iraq is a lost case and others who believe that it is beyond Arab countries and the Arab League to contain the unfolding tragedy in Iraq. Any efforts by the pan-Arab conglomerate have also been perceived by many as too little too late, and that the main damage had been done since Iraq was left to be ruled for long years by a merciless dictator.

Whatever it's worth, the Arab League's next step has even been described by some as an undue risk that Secretary-General Amr Moussa is about to take "for no good reason". This is particularly true given the fact that Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi in Iraq has already issued a statement against the visit.

However, Moussa's mission to Iraq -- for which the countdown has started -- is an assignment that the chief of the conglomerate is undertaking on behalf of Arab countries in search of a seemingly impossible Iraqi reconciliation. It is a mission set to run for a few days that Moussa is about to embark on to convince all Iraqis to put aside whatever grievances they have in a common search for an end to the daily massacres and political squabbles that have been the hallmark of Iraqi life over recent months. It is a mission that, as Moussa said this week, the League is undertaking with faith in the right of Iraq to regain its prominent role in the Arab world and in the region as a whole.

And according to Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Ahmed Bin Heli, who returned from a few-day visit to Iraq on Wednesday, it is a mission that "will send Iraqis, all Iraqis a strong and much expected message of solidarity from the Arab world. It is a message of solidarity that has to be sent at these difficult moments that the Iraqis are going through," Bin Heli told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Speaking just hours before starting out for Baghdad with Moussa, Bin Heli sounded convinced that the mission "will deliver". He also said that the many voices that have questioned the validity -- much less the rationale -- of this mission will soon be silenced when Moussa communicates the genuine feelings of Arab support to all Iraqis and encourages all Iraqis to agree on "a reconciliation conference where they can agree on the common road ahead and accept to accommodate the grievances and demands of one another".

Bin Heli, who was subject to a militant assault during his visit to Baghdad, also sounded convinced that despite the threats, the risk was worth taking because Iraq needs all the help from the Arab world.

"I believe and I hope that all measures will be promptly taken to secure the visit of the secretary-general and his delegation. And I believe and I hope that all Iraqis -- with no exception -- will realise that this delegation is going to Iraq, all of Iraq, with one message and with no bias whatsoever," Bin Heli told the Weekly.

Responding to sceptical Iraqi voices that have expressed concern over the credibility of the mission in view of the perceived long-standing Arab League's association with the Arab Sunnis of Iraq, Bin Heli stressed that the Arab League mission to Baghdad is "not at all tailored to take sides with Arab Sunnis or any other side, nor is it linked or meant to interfere with the ongoing political process including the drafting of the Iraqi constitution."

He went on: "This is not what we are after. What we are after is the spirit among Iraqis. We do not want to interfere or negotiate anything on behalf of anyone. Rather the opposite. We just want to get all the parties to sit together and negotiate in good spirit and without excluding anyone."

Some Iraqi politicians and commentators, especially from the Kurdish and Shia quarters, have made their approval of Moussa's mission conditional. They told Bin Heli when he was in Baghdad last week that if Moussa was coming to ask them to communicate directly or indirectly with ex-members of the Baath Party then he might as well not come because they had no intention of doing so.

Others have stressed that unless Moussa turns his back on all factions that have been involved in all forms of violence -- without making any distinction between the attacks against Iraqis or United States and other foreign troops -- Moussa has no chances of succeeding in his mission or of setting up a reconciliation conference.

Bin Heli's answer was that Moussa's message is by no means about one particular group. "We are talking about all Iraqis and I am sure that when this message is delivered by the secretary- general to senior Iraqi officials and political figures it will be well received and contemplated." He quoted Moussa in a preparatory meeting as telling his aides "that we need to prepare ourselves for a long process and much hard work and that nobody should expect to be an overnight success."

Nobody has any illusions that the mission is not going to turn Iraq into a safe country in a short time. "One would be naïve to think so," Bin Heli told the Weekly. However, he added, it would also be naïve to disregard the influence that could be exerted by top members of the Iraqi government, including President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, and top religious leaders including Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani if they accepted the offer that Moussa is going to Baghdad on behalf of the Arab countries.

Moussa's offer is basically about scheduling a large conference under the auspices of the Arab League, at its Cairo headquarters, by the beginning of next year, if possible, to freely debate key issues including the relationship with the foreign forces in Iraq, the scope and design of the federal state that some Iraqis wish to establish and the political and economic gains that each side could have in a way that make all sides capable of being able to safely co-exist in a unified, free and sovereign Iraq.

"We carried out some preliminary talks in Baghdad last week and I can say that I sensed an overall good response to the secretary-general's visit," Bin Heli said. He added that at best Moussa's mission could kick-start a regional and international process to encourage Iraqi reconciliation. "This will be a mission that the League will undertake in consultation with key regional players including Iran and Turkey and in coordination with the United Nations," he added.

If things fail to go according to the plan, however, Moussa's mission, Bin Heli said, will at least show the Iraqis that the Arabs have not forgotten about them and that they wish to extend a helping hand.

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