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Iraq: Views Of Security Conference Reflect Sectarian Divide

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki addressing the March 10 conference (epa) March 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The March 10 Baghdad security conference was hailed as a success by Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who labeled the meeting "constructive and positive." But other observers tended to view the event through the prism of the country's sectarian divisions.

Zebari said he was pleased with the substance of the meeting, telling reporters at a March 10 press briefing following the conference that neighboring states were eager to support Iraq, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. He also hailed the meeting as a first step to better relations between the United States and Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria.

Zebari later told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the conference sent a positive message that Iraq can act successfully and that life in the country is not as bleak as some imagine.

MORE: RFE/RL spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi.

The Iraq government's consensus was that the conference was important because it was held in Baghdad, meaning it was a recognition of the political process that resulted in the current, elected government and a show of solidarity with the Iraqi people. It was also the first such high-level meeting to take place in Baghdad in 17 years, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Rafi al-Isawi said.

Few Concrete Results

The conference produced few concrete results though. Conference participants decided to form three committees to tackle security cooperation; refugees and displaced Iraqis; and fuel and energy imports for Iraq.

Zebari said he expects it will take some time to see results from Iraq's neighbors, since the committees will discuss and review neighbors' previous commitments before any new actions are taken, RFI reported.

A follow-up meeting will likely be held in April on the level of foreign ministers, but the venue has not been decided, the foreign minister said. He still prefers a Baghdad venue, but said he is considering offers from both Egypt and Turkey to host the meeting.

Among Iraqi observers, opinions on the conference reflected sectarian positions. Both Sunni and Shi'ite observers criticized organizers for failing to produce a list of recommendations at the meeting's end. Some said the lack of recommendations reflected a lack of sincerity by participants. Others claimed it proved the meeting was held only to improve the images of participants, with no real intention of achieving change.

Moreover, comparing the government's view of the conference with the perspective of Sunni "resistance" groups highlights the continuing disconnect between the opposing sides: Sunnis continued to talk about reshaping the current Iraqi government, rather than focusing directly on the issue of the conference, which was strengthening security and ending violence.

The Sunni View

Sunni Arab leaders outside the political process also complained that the conference would have been more productive had it included those members of the so-called resistance who have thus far shied away from participation in the political process.

The March 10 security talks in Baghdad (epa)

Several Sunni Arabs also argued in Arabic-language print and broadcast media that the conference was only held to prepare the way for a U.S. withdrawal, claiming the United States had failed in Iraq. The fact that no timetable was discussed at the conference riled some Sunni leaders outside Iraq. Days earlier, former leaders in Saddam Hussein's government -- including former Central Bank Governor Khayr al-Din Hasib, former minister and Deputy Secretary-General of the Arab Nationalist Movement Abd al-Karim Hani, and former minister Salah Umar Ali -- announced an initiative to "save Iraq," claiming it would not be possible to make peace between the "resistance" and the Iraqi government because, in their view, the Iraqi government is sectarian.

Instead, they contended, a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of multinational forces and a two-year interim government established. In addition, all political detainees should be released, they demanded.

Some Shi'ite leaders also contended that the setting of a timetable would reassure nervous neighbors. But Foreign Minister Zebari said a timetable would not be established for the sake of Iraq's neighbors.

"Iranians have public fears and we answered them that these forces have an international mandate and the decision is in the Iraqi government's hands," Zebari said, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on March 12.

Talking Shop?

Iyad al-Samarra'i, a parliamentarian from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front told Baghdad Satellite Channel that he did not think the conference would bring the political process back to square one but rather "amend the course of political progress, taking into consideration a number of principles, including Iraqi national reconciliation."

Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman told "Al-Hayat" that "meeting for few hours and under a deteriorating security situation and the presence of parties that have major problems between them rendered the conference's success limited."

"Iraq does not need international conferences as much as internal meetings that include the parties to the conflict inside the country," he said.

But Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim had a different take on the meeting. Before it convened, he said in an interview published on his political party's website: "Continuing to hold conferences and meetings with official and nonofficial figures will have an effect. They have indeed had an effect, although they did not solve the basic problem in Iraq."

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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