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Landmark Reconciliation Conference Underway in Iraq

Iraqi political figures took the first tentative steps toward national reconciliation Saturday. But they quickly discovered the path would not be a smooth one, when one major Sunni Arab party left the talks. VOA's Margaret Besheer was at the Baghdad conference and files this report.

Iraq's government hopes that the national reconciliation conference will show a serious will to end the sectarian violence that has been terrorizing Baghdad and other parts of the country for many months.

Naseer al-Ani, the conference spokesman, told reporters that representatives from many ethnic and religious groups, as well as former Baathists, are attending the two-day meeting inside the heavily protected Green Zone.

The conference will take on sensitive issues, such as what to do about militias and whether former members of Saddam Hussein's military can be reinstated in the new Iraqi army.

One of the most important items on the table is a possible amnesty. In Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's 24-point reconciliation plan, announced last June, he proposed pardoning all criminals, except those who have killed coalition forces or Iraqi civilians.

Haidar Ibadi, a Shi'ite member of parliament from Mr. Maliki's Dawa party, said the prime minister would announce an amnesty on Sunday.

But Rida Taki, a member of a rival Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, says there will not be an amnesty.

"Not amnesty," said Taki. "I think something between amnesty and, for example, setting free the detainees; not general amnesty. We need approval from parliament about the amnesty."

Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni Arab with the secular Umma Party, says his party supports a month-long amnesty that would apply to anyone willing to admit their crimes, and who wants to be part of the new political process - even militia members. He says an amnesty is vital to peace.

"It is very hard. I have lost my only two sons," said al-Alusi. "I know how painful the situation is. Yes, I would give amnesty also for the people who have killed my sons, under the conditions, a new start for everybody."

But as the conference got under way, it became apparent that dialogue would not be easy. One of the main Sunni Arab parties, the Iraqi National Accord, which is led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, pulled out of the conference.

A spokesman for the group told reporters that the conference should have included all factions outside the political process, except for al-Qaida and terrorist groups like it. But they believed many good nationalist groups had been excluded and that, without them, the results of the conference would be a failure.

Shi'ite politician Ahmed Chalabi told reporters that the departure of Allawi's group would not hurt the conference.

"It is alright. We cannot achieve unanimity at this stage. It is not a very important thing to focus on one group pulling out," he said.

The talks are scheduled to continue through Sunday. Haidar Ibadi, Mr. Maliki's ally in the Dawa party, told VOA that this dialogue is very important. He said there is no other alternative, except to fight in the streets, and Iraqis do not want to do that.