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Iraq: Reconciliation Conference Underscores Political, Sectarian Rifts

By RFE/RL contributing analyst Sumedha Senanayake --> Many Iraqi leaders have expressed doubts that Prime Minister al-Maliki's government can advance reconciliation (AFP) On March 19, Iraq concluded a two-day national reconciliation conference in Baghdad. The organizers of the conference billed it as an opportunity for Iraq's disparate factions to come together in order to discuss their differences.

While the conference ended with a flurry of positive rhetoric, there were distinct indications that deep political and sectarian fissures persist.

Some Reasons For Optimism

In his inaugural speech to hundreds of religious and political leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki described national reconciliation as a "life boat" that would lead Iraq toward stability. He noted that the country was making significant strides toward healing sectarian and political rifts, citing the passage of Iraq's $48 billion 2008 budget and the Justice and Accountability Law, which allowed former Ba'athists to return to their government posts.

After the conference, conference spokesman Tashin al-Shaykly said the participants pledged to work together to foster national unity and build a stable Iraq. "The groups participating in the conference affirmed their commitment to national principles and the unity of Iraq's land and people," he said. "They denounced terrorism and rejected ways of forcible relocation practiced against Iraqi people. The conference's preparatory committee, through the state's Ministry of National Dialogue, would submit the recommendations reached by the conference participants to the council of ministers."

Moreover, the conclusion of the conference coincided with the announcement by the Presidential Council that the governorates law had finally been approved. According to the Iraqi Constitution, the three-member council must approve all legislation passed by parliament. The council had earlier vetoed the law after Shi'ite Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi had voiced displeasure at the provisions in the legislation allowing the prime minister to remove regional governors from office.

Al-Mahdi and his party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), had vociferously objected to giving the prime minister more authority, and called for more power to be placed in the hands of the governorate councils. Having the law passed by parliament only to languish in a rancorous debate between members of the Presidential Council was seen as a major setback for the political process.

Thus the council's reversal was something of a political breakthrough. A continued delay in passing the legislation as the conference was being conducted threatened to embarrass the government and undercut the spirit of the conference.

Notable Absences

While the conference emanated a sense of optimism, there were clear signs that the it had failed to achieve even its most basic goals. Conference spokesman al-Shaykly said that invitations were sent to 700 people, but only 375 attended. Among the notable absences were former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance (Al-Tawafuq) Front, the National Dialogue Front, and the Muslim Scholars Association.

Members of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement initially attended the conference, but then walked out, calling it a public relations ploy by the government. The head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nasir al-Rubay'i, said his group did not believe that the government would produce concrete results.

Some refused to attend after being disillusioned with the empty promises the government had made at previous gatherings. This view was echoed by Harith al-Dari, leader of the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, in a March 22 interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television. Al-Dari alleged that his group was not even formally invited to the conference because its positions clashed with the policies of the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government.

"We were not invited and if we were invited, we would not attend because we attended two previous conferences and reached agreement on certain things, but the government and ruling parties evaded them. We will not get into another experience with them in order not to give this government, which destroyed Iraq and its people, another chance," al-Dari said.

A more stinging walkout was by Sheikh Ali Hatam Sulayman, a prominent Sunni tribal leader and a leading figure in the Al-Anbar Awakening Movement. His group has been widely credited with driving Al-Qaeda out of the western region.

The so-called "Al-Anbar model" of establishing "awakening councils" with local tribesman has been duplicated in eight other governorates with significant success, and Prime Minister al-Maliki has repeatedly praised them. However, after the opening speeches, Sulayman abruptly left with his delegation and described the conference as "a failure, because the Iraqi politicians are a failure."

Deep Rifts Remain

While holding the conference was undoubtedly a positive event, the large number of factions that boycotted, avoided, or walked out of conference demonstrated that the deep rifts among Iraqi political groups and ethnic groups are still quite prevalent. Their absences also undercut the legitimacy of the conference itself.

One of the basic initiatives regarding the national reconciliation process was to assure Sunni Arab groups and parties that the current Shi'ite-led government was moving toward an agenda that was inclusive. Analysts have repeatedly noted that the "insurgency" is primarily the result of Sunni fear and rage at being excluded from the new political realities in post-Hussein Iraq. Not having the largest Sunni Arab political bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, present arguably defeats the purpose of even having a reconciliation conference.

In addition, members of the outlawed former Ba'ath Party or representatives of the insurgency were not on hand, either. It was unclear whether an invitation was even extended to them.

Members of the governing Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, said the absences were a selfish act by a few groups that hindered the formation of a strong Iraqi government. Nevertheless, what was clearly apparent was that a genuine dialogue between disparate groups with opposing agendas failed to occur.

While the year-old U.S. troop surge and the subsequent drop in violence was meant to create a window of opportunity for the Iraqi government to promote reconciliation, it remains unclear whether Iraq has the collective political will to have a comprehensive dialogue between its different factions, let alone achieve reconciliation.