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Iraqis Divided Over Timing of US Troop Withdrawal

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Iraqi delegates attending an Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference in Cairo say they have agreed to reconvene in late February or early March to decide on a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq. Iraqis are just as divided as Americans over the timing and conditions for withdrawal.

Iraqis across sectarian and ethnic lines say they do agree on one thing: U.S. and coalition forces need to leave Iraq in order for the country to function as a fully sovereign nation.

But when it comes to the questions of when and how the coalition troops should leave, Iraqi opinion remains deeply divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein and have been feeling marginalized since the dictator's overthrow in 2003, are generally more anxious for foreign troops to leave Iraq.

They have long insisted that the presence of U.S. troops is the main cause of violence in Iraq, which has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than two thousand U.S. service members in the past three and a half years.

Abdulrahman Said Bakr al-Naimi is a Sunni member of the Iraqi national assembly. He says the Sunni-led insurgency is legitimate and predicted that terrorism would continue unabated until the Americans leave for good.

Mr. Naimi says he believes as soon as the Americans present a timetable for getting their troops home, all Iraqi problems can and will be solved.

But Baghdad resident Heba Abdul Hassan, 31, says she disagrees.

The woman says she speaks for many Shi'ites, who fear that a quick withdrawal of foreign troops will simply invite more chaos and violence from Sunni extremists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq group has branded Shi'ite Muslims as non-believers and has vowed to kill them all.

Ms. Hassan says she believes coalition troops should not begin leaving in large numbers until Iraqi security forces prove that they are free of political and religious bias and are capable of protecting all Iraqis, regardless of their faith or background.

Ms. Hassan says she believes the effectiveness of the Iraqi police and army is constantly being undermined by the rising sectarian tension in the country. As a result, she says, few people trust them right now to work in the interest of everyone.

The three-day reconciliation conference in Cairo was aimed at addressing that growing mistrust between Iraqi religious and ethnic communities.

But analysts here say with the conference being held so close to Iraqi national elections on December 15th, all sides have been making maximum demands, which have not been helpful to the talks.

The main demand of Sunni Arabs is for the announcement of a date for the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq. Shi'ites and Kurds, who were long oppressed by Saddam and his ruling Baath Party, are demanding that Baath Party members be excluded from Iraqi society. Most Baath Party members were Sunni Arabs and many now stand accused of actively supporting the country's insurgency.

A Kurdish professor at the University of Baghdad, Abdul Jabbar Ahmad, says the key to reconciliation may lie with the country's Shi'ite Muslims, who dominate the current interim government and are expected to hold a majority in the next government.

"If the Iraqi government negotiates with the resistance, with the support of the U.S.A., I think stability will happen in Iraq. But if we are going to treat all of them as terrorists, I think whether the U.S. stays or withdraws from Iraq, the situation will be a mess," he said.

On Sunday, Iraq's Kurdish interim president, Jalal Talabani, said that he was willing to open a dialogue with former Baath Party members. But he ruled out including any member in the talks who is still actively supporting the insurgency.

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