To be sure, al-Maliki must make progress within the next two months. If he is able to bring some insurgent groups to the table before a UN-sponsored national-reconciliation conference takes place later this summer, he will be in a stronger position vis-a-vis more resistant insurgent groups who have been reluctant until now to enter into talks.
Which Insurgents Can Be Talked To?
As Sunni Arab leaders have already noted, a compromise will likely need to be reached regarding al-Maliki's red lines: no negotiations with Saddam Hussein loyalists, hard-core Ba'athists, or Al-Qaeda supporters who have shed the blood of the Iraqi people. "If you want to achieve national reconciliation, you can't include some groups in peace talks and exclude others," Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was quoted by Reuters on June 26 as saying.
Should the prime minister be inclined to open talks with the above-mentioned groups, he would first need to appease members of his own coalition, the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance. Members of various parties in the alliance have already said that they would not support talks with either Ba'athists or Islamist militants.
In reality, the solution lies somewhere in the middle. If al-Maliki can get some insurgent groups on board, he could then take steps to redefine his red lines to allow for hard-core resistance groups, assuming such groups are willing to enter into negotiations with the government.
While the government may be willing to engage Ba'athists, it is not likely to seek talks with Islamist insurgents, who have drawn the wrath of both Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis. The government realizes that once the majority of Iraqi secular insurgent groups are on board, Islamist groups operating inside Iraq will be vulnerable, with few supporters and fewer places to hide.
Shi'ite parties would likely set preconditions to any talks, such as an admission of past crimes and perhaps jail time for some insurgents. While such talks would offer Sunni nationalist insurgents a way out, the legitimacy they have been seeking may not be satisfied through any admission of wrongdoing.
Still, an initiative of this nature remains long off, and much will depend on al-Maliki's ability to achieve more near-term goals, which are aimed at calming the security situation in the country and building confidence between the Sunni and Shi'ite communities.
Speculation On Which Insurgent Groups On Board
According to Western press reports, seven insurgent groups have already expressed an interest in al-Maliki's offer of amnesty.
Al-Maliki aide and parliamentarian Hasan al-Sunayd identified five of the groups as: the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Muhammad's Army (Jaysh Muhammad), Abtal Al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), 9 Nisan (April) Group, the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces, as well as the "Al-Fatah" Brigades, AP reported on June 26.
Al-Sunayd later denied mentioning the groups to AP in a June 27 interview with "The New York Times." However, Baghdad's "Al-Sabah" on June 26 cited al-Sunayd as identifying the five groups and the Al-Fatih Brigades.
While al-Maliki has said that he would not begin talks with groups that have shed Iraqi blood, if al-Sunayd's list is correct, it appears the prime minister will engage groups that have carried out attacks against multinational forces. Both the 1920 Revolution Brigades and Muhammad's Army have targeted U.S. forces since 2003, the former claiming responsibility for attacks as recently as June 7.
Support, Skepticism Of Initiative
Those political parties already participating in government expressed support -- albeit sometimes lukewarm -- for the reconciliation plan on June 25. The major criticism of politicians from all sides is that the initiative lacks specifics, including concrete mechanisms for implementation.
Sunni Arab leader Adnan al-Dulaymi, leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, called the initiative a "first step" to realizing security and stability in Iraq.
Iyad Jamal al-Din, a member of the Iraqi National List, called on Iraqis to recognize the need to readdress de-Ba'athification. "The government is ours, the parliament is ours, and I am certain that had we allowed the Ba'ath Party to join the elections, it would not have won more than 30-50 seats and this does not change the political equation," he said, implying that the Ba'ath Party was no longer a threat to Iraq. "We must be more truthful and transparent to ourselves and we must deal with the de-Ba'athification law if we want to realize peace and security."
Later, Mithal al-Alusi, head of the Iraqi Nation List, seconded Jamal al-Din, telling parliament that some 40 Ba'athists were already active members of parliament.
Meanwhile, Sunni-led National Dialogue Front member Umar al-Juburi maintained that any reconciliation should not "rob the Iraqi people of the right to resist occupation. However, we must distinguish between resisting the occupation and terrorism," he said in a televised address to parliament.
Shi'ite leaders were supportive, but more reserved in comments before parliament. One parliamentarian, Falah Shanshal, representing the Al-Sadr bloc, was heckled for announcing: "The killers of the Iraqi people, from the Ba'athists, Saddamists, and terrorists should be red lines as far as reconciliation is concerned. They must be tried and brought to justice for their crimes against the Iraqi people. Forgiving them would be regarded as a betrayal of the Iraqi people and the martyrs who were killed by these criminals."
Hasan al-Zarqani, an aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Jazeera television in a June 26 interview that while the al-Sadr bloc supports the reconciliation initiative, it has some reservations about the language of the document. "All the articles were ambiguous and do not identify the nature of the parties they target," he said, insisting that the government be more forthcoming with details on how it intends to implement the plan.
"It is true we support the initiative, but we cannot shake the hands of those who slaughter and kill Iraqis, and who try every day to inflict destruction on the Iraqi people," al-Zarqani added. He also called on al-Maliki to identify those militias that he intends to disband. Al-Zarqani did not say whether the Al-Sadr bloc would change its position should al-Maliki order the cleric's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, disbanded.
Fu'ad Ma'sum of the Kurdistan Coalition told parliament on June 25 that any initiative toward national reconciliation was a "blessed initiative," while Assyrian leader Yunadim Kanna and Iraqi Turkoman leader Sa'd al-Din Muhammad Amin both expressed support. Kanna, however, expressed reservations over the plan to merge militias into the state security apparatuses.
Sunni Waqf (Endowments) head Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i lent the support of the highest Sunni religious body to the initiative on June 27, telling reporters in Baghdad that Iraqis should forget the past and look to the future. "Reminiscing in the past should only be done to take lessons and not revenge...internal fighting does not bring good to anybody regardless of the pretexts cited. The wise ones should eventually hold talks to agree on stemming sedition," al-Samarra'i said, and called for the disbanding of militias as a first step to a wider settlement.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa also praised the plan in a June 26 statement, MENA reported the same day. Musa said the plan includes principles and mechanisms that reflect a positive trend toward laying down the foundations of dialogue and reconciliation, and said he hoped it will serve as a starting point for a serious and comprehensive dialogue.
Musa called on political, religious, and tribal leaders to give the initiative a chance, adding that the Arab League intends to support the initiative through its sponsorship of an Iraqi National Accord conference. That conference was slated to be held in Baghdad last week, but has been postponed until later this summer.
The United Nations has also expressed support for the program. UN special representative to Iraq Ashraf Qazi called al-Maliki's 24-point plan "vital steps towards stabilization and normalization of the situation in the country" in a June 26 statement.
Hard-Core Resistance Denounces Plan
As expected, groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association, which has supported the resistance since 2003, do not appear prepared to support the plan. Association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari told Al-Jazeera television in a June 26 interview that the association intends "to study" the plan.
Asked to give his initial impressions, al-Dari criticized the plan for not giving a concrete timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. He claimed that the plan was different from what the association expected, insisting that the original plan had been altered under pressure from the U.S. government.
Al-Dari said the association will not accept a plan that does not set a timetable for foreign forces to leave Iraq. "We cannot go into the minor details before dealing with the major problem," he said. He also criticized the plan for calling on the resistance to renounce violence, saying that it is unrealistic to expect the resistance to claim it was wrong.
Likewise, the Mujahedin Shura Council also rejected the initiative. In a June 26 Internet statement, the council referred to the initiative as an attempt to save the "Crusaders and their subordinates" from their weak position in Iraq after failing for more than three years to break the mujahedin, Al-Jazeera reported the same day. The position of the council means little to al-Maliki, as the prime minister has already said the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group would be excluded from any negotiations.
Al-Maliki said reform must be based on three pillars: a general mobilization to deter terrorists, a development and reconstruction campaign, and reconciliation and national dialogue. To this end, he has formed the National Council for the Reconciliation and National Dialogue Plan that includes representatives of the three branches of government, the minister of state for national dialogue, and representatives of parliament, tribes, and religious authorities.
Provincial subcommittees will also be formed, as will field committees to support the work of the council. "To the one who seeks reconstruction and revision, we extend an olive branch so that we can join hands in building our country. To those who insist on aggression, terrorism, and murder, we extend a hand that carries a firm legal stand to protect our country and people from any interference by the criminals," al-Maliki said.
The 24 key principles of the plan include the adoption of a "sincere national dialogue with all political visions" that adopt a stand against terrorists and Saddamists; amnesty for detainees who were not involved in terrorist activities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and the formation of committees to release the innocent; reconsidering the work of the de-Ba'athification Commission; taking quick action to build the armed forces; supporting the victims of the former regime; compensating those harmed by terrorist attacks; separating the armed forces from the political arena and resolving the problem of militias and illegal armed groups; initiating a large-scale development campaign and tackling unemployment; and returning the displaced to their homes.
Al-Maliki did not say how he intends to implement the ambitious plan, but told parliament members that members of the national council will host a series of discussions with members of parliament in order to begin the process of reconciliation.
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SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.