For Iraqis living in poverty amid bombs and death squads, the Cairo conference is mainly TV, though some hope it may usher the beginning of the end of their ordeal, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad
When the live relay from Cairo of the National Reconciliation Conference began, jobless Iraqis gathered in coffee houses to watch the proceedings. In a country with an estimated unemployment rate of 64 per cent, one doesn't need to listen to pundits offering their views of the Iraqi problem. The problem in Iraq is one of survival. The coffee house audience kept watching with interest. Often, they made derisive remarks about the past of some of the Iraqi officials appearing on screen.
The mood became sombre when the news broke of another car bomb in northeast Baghdad -- another blast with dozens of casualties. In the two days preceding the conference, suicide bombers killed 160 people, including 10 Iraqi servicemen, and wounded a lot more. Death squads still kill and abduct many citizens, including university professors. Members of these squads often disguise themselves as the police and move around in 4-wheel drive vehicles, the same type favoured by security forces and senior officials.
Those watching in the coffee house agreed with those attending the conference on one thing: the tragic situation in Iraq is linked to the continued presence of occupation forces and the major offensive these forces are waging against their "enemies". Mohammad Ali, a graduate of the night studies branch of an education college, cannot find a job. The country has a shortage of teachers, he says, but the Ministry of Education would not appoint graduates of night studies, unless they have a senior official to recommend them or are willing pay as much as $500 to get their application accepted. "The most important thing about the Cairo meeting is that everyone is there and they are sitting together -- for the first time," Ali told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Ismail Hasan, also jobless, said, "I hope the conference would find a formula for all Iraqis to act together, or else the bloodshed is likely to continue, or even get worse." Ammar Fadl, an engineer working as a taxi driver, wondered about the strong Iranian presence, saying: "The men who were in exile should promise to stop carrying out the policy of the countries that had once hosted them. They should start acting as Iraqis."
The Baath Party issued a statement distancing itself from the Baathists participating in the conference and calling for the "legitimate" government to be restored. No one paid much attention to that. The Baath obviously still lives in the illusion of past grandeur. The coffee house audience were hardly astonished that Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari made no mention of occupation forces in his speech. Shaker Abdallah, an English language student working in a grocery, said: "Al-Jaafari had asked the occupation forces to stay [longer]. He did so officially and without consulting with the National Assembly."
Although civilians are the majority of victims of suicide attacks, many Iraqis sympathise with the national resistance. President Jalal Talabani, Sheikh Harith Al-Dari of the Association of Muslim Scholars, and Minas Al-Yusufi of the Christian Democrats, all addressed the issue of national resistance in their Cairo speeches. Former army officer Aziz Karim remarked, "President Bush said that he would resist if his country was occupied. Resistance is a legitimate and patriotic right. I cannot understand those who walked out of the conference because they objected to the recognition of national resistance."
I asked Karim if he could distinguish between terrorist attacks and resistance operations. "Sure I can, from the way the operations are mounted and the targets chosen. Those who see resistance as terror have some explaining to do about the torture taking place in the dungeons of the Interior Ministry and the mysterious death squads."
On the first day of the conference, President Bush, who was visiting South Korea, promised that the war in Iraq would continue until terror is eliminated and freedom achieved. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is accompanying Bush in his Asian tour, stated that US forces should remain in Iraq until its mission is complete. But what is the mission of US forces in Iraq exactly?
Farah Habib, a primary school teacher, told the Weekly : "The Americans are determined to get even with terror at the expense of the Iraqis. Ordinary Iraqis have no doubt about it. They know that Bush wants to make the world safer for the Americans by waging a war far away from the US. Those meeting in Cairo should call on Bush to stop referring to the Iraqis as enemies."
Abd Elwan, a businessman once imprisoned under Saddam due to his affiliation to Al-Daawa Party, sees things differently. "I have no idea what makes resistance honourable or patriotic. The Cairo meeting is very important, for it can find a way for Iraqis to restore normalcy. We have to make the coming elections a success, especially now that the Sunnis are taking part."
Elwan called on those meeting in Cairo to rise above sectarian interests and act as Iraqis first and foremost.
The Kurds were satisfied with the remarks President Hosni Mubarak and Arab league Secretary General Amr Moussa said about them. The Turkomans, for their part, were pleased with the statement by Iraqi Turkoman Front chief, Saadeddin Arkig, to the effect that everyone should work for a united Iraq. Iraq needs help and guidance. Dozens are being killed every day, either by bombers or US "friendly" fire. The main Iraqi reconciliation conference -- the preparations for which was held in Cairo this week -- is expected to take place in Baghdad by the end of February 2006. The question occupying most Iraqis now is if this week's Cairo preparatory meeting could help in curbing the ongoing blood bath in their country.