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Iraqi Reconciliation Conference Begins in Cairo

Iraqi politicians have started a three-day reconciliation conference in Cairo, sponsored by the Arab League. The meeting includes almost all of Iraq's ethnic and religious factions, many of whom are in deep disagreement over some key political issues. The Arab League is trying to bring them together.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa welcomed the Iraqis to Cairo, saying that, only a sense of real unity across ethnic and religious lines can keep the battered country together. He said the whole region needs to support that effort.

He says, "Protecting Iraq and immunizing it against the danger of slipping into sedition or civil war is in the Arabs' best interest. From a political and logical perspective, it is even in the Iranian, Turkish and international interests. No one will benefit from turning Iraq into a battleground for regional and international conflicts and tensions."

The Arab League has recently boosted its involvement in the Iraqi peace process. Mr. Moussa recently made his first trip to Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The Cairo summit is designed to bring different factions together, and start working toward a political deal that can end the violence. But even agreeing on who could attend the meeting has been a challenge.

Several Sunni politicians had pushed for more participation from former Baath party members and ex-Saddam-era officials, who are now living in neighboring states. But the interim government, dominated by Shi'ites and Kurds who were brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein, has ruled that out.

In his address to the Cairo conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari was blunt.

He says, "But we have drawn a red line. There is no room for Baathists in Iraq. This is not a personal decision that I announce from the Arab League platform, it is an Iraqi reality. The time has passed for Iraq to be manhandled by one man. Iraq today is a laboratory of heroes."

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani echoed the prime minister's statement.

He says, "Our national unity and reconciliation does not include, under any circumstances, the murderers and criminals among the followers of the old regime, who have left us with mass graves."

In a later speech, the head of the influential Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, Harith al-Dari, called the Iraqi insurgency a "legitimate response to occupation," and he said it is getting stronger. He told the meeting that the insurgency is stronger today than it was a year ago.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was among the Arab League participants at the opening ceremony. Iraq has accused several of its neighbors, including Syria, of sheltering members of Saddam Hussein's regime and family, and of failing to keep foreign militants from crossing their borders into Iraq to join the insurgency.

In the Arab League conference hall, Mr. Talabani addressed his countrymen and other delegates in Arabic, rather than his native Kurdish.

He says, "Our new Iraq is at peace with its neighbors. We are a friend to those who befriend us, and enemy only of those who are against us."

About 100 Iraqi leaders are attending the three-day conference, being held about a month before parliamentary elections scheduled for December 15. The Arab League chief, Mr. Moussa, has downplayed expectations. He says the meeting is simply designed to pave the way for a full-fledged reconciliation conference to be held in Iraq in a few months.

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