reports on intensifying Arab efforts to sow unity and reconciliation in a disaggregating Iraq
In Iraq this week to pave the way for a national accord conference to be held at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League later next week, a League delegation has described its mission as one focussed on finalising the logistics for the much- anticipated meeting.
During his trip to Iraq late last month, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa reached an agreement with the representatives of all leading political and ethnic groupings, as well as of the Iraqi government, to come together for a meeting under the umbrella of the pan-Arab organisation to agree on non-violent ways to settle their deep and so far hard-to-mend differences over the present and future of their country, its identity, religious orientation and even first and second language. But above all, the Moussa-proposed conference aims to get all Iraqis to agree on a formula to deal with the presence of foreign troops that invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003 and have so far declined to offer any indication of their schedule for departure.
As League and Iraqi sources admit today, the devil is in the details; and it is the details that the latest delegation, headed by Assistant Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Bin Heli, aimed to finalise during a five-day trip to Iraq this week.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly following a set of meetings with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders, some members of the delegation reported good news. "The momentum that was created by the visit of Secretary-General Moussa, and his call for a national Iraqi accord, is still there. Top Iraqi government officials and political and ethnic leaders are still determined to go for the conference," one delegate said. He added that there is still a tentative agreement that this accord conference should convene in Cairo at the headquarters of the League before the end of the month, though the "details are being finalised".
The delegation, which arrived back in Egypt yesterday, reported that it managed to get the Iraqi government and main Kurdish groups to nominate representatives for the proposed conference. They also reported that Shia groups, including that led by the charismatic leader Moqtada Al-Sadr, are willing to participate but have expressed some concern over the possible presence of a few Sunnis that they perceive as representatives of the dismantled Baath Party of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which persecuted the Shias of Iraq, among others. "One has to give the Shia leaders credit for accepting the presence of some former Baathists who have not been involved in executing the massacres ordered by Saddam Hussein against his people in the Shia quarters," said one source.
Meanwhile, leading Sunni groups, especially the most influential Organisation of Muslim Scholars, are still finalising the list of their representatives to the summit, hoping to include some figures associated with the resistance that is opposed to the continued presence of US and other foreign troops on Iraqi soil, and to the general Shia and Kurdish assent of the presence of these troops. Nonetheless, "nobody came to us saying that he is a representative of the militant Iraqi opposition. Nobody is saying that his participation could lead to an end to the attacks. But some say that they have channels within the opposition movements, and that they can relay a positive message if the conference can agree on a collective understanding of how to deal with the presence of foreign troops and how, eventually, to bring that to an end," said one source speaking from Iraq.
The issue of the presence of foreign troops in Iraq might be the most sensitive issue on the agenda of the Iraq national accord conference that could take place within days, but it is not the only thorny item. Other perplexing issues relate to the level of influence of Shias versus Sunnis, the zones of authority of each group, the relation between the practically autonomous Kurdish northern part of the country and the rest of Iraq, the division of power and wealth, and the relation between state and religion. Many of these issues were addressed in the new Iraqi constitution passed a couple of weeks ago but are subject to revision within weeks.
For their part, Arab League sources insist that they have no plans to draft or impose an agenda. It is the Iraqis themselves, the League says, that will draft the agenda of their meeting and set its priorities. "Nobody wants to impose anything on Iraq. We are just consulting with Iraqis and reaching out to them," said a senior aide to Secretary-General Moussa.
This message was firmly underlined by Moussa during his own recent meetings in Iraq. It was a message that the League delegation reaffirmed during this week's talks. "We told them, in plain words, that we are not trying to get any particular result out of this conference, except to launch a mechanism for Iraqi dialogue that should lead, hopefully, to a major national dialogue, perhaps to be held in Iraq early next year," one League source in Iraq said. He added that Iraqis accept that it would be useful for mid-December Iraqi elections if the Cairo conference managed to yield some positive understandings; a sentiment of accord, they agree, would make the elections less violent and would put the elected government in a better position to represent the interests of all Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the Arab League has been garnering growing international support for its efforts in Iraq. Both the US and the UK, which have the largest part of the close to 200,000 foreign troops in Iraq, have publicly and privately conveyed their well wishes to the Arab effort, which they hope will contain the state of flux prevailing in Iraq even if both Washington and London have to pay a political price -- namely, open discussion of a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
During his visit to Cairo this week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed strong support for Secretary-General Moussa and his efforts in Iraq. The Arab League initiative, he said, "is a very good initiative". "If we don't help parties [in Iraq] to reconcile, elections alone will not help," Annan said.
Hesham Youssef, chief of staff of the Arab League secretary-general said that his office is working closely with the office of the UN secretary-general to coordinate efforts to make the Iraqi national accord conference a success. He indicated that the UN would be represented in the conference along with representatives of the Arab Iraq Ministerial Committee (Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Algeria and the Arab League).
Youssef also said that the support of Iraq's non-Arab neighbours, Turkey and Iran, for the reconciliation effort is being pursued at the highest levels.