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Iraq Unity Conference Marred by Boycott, Walkout

Iraq's national reconciliation conference got off to a rough start when large Sunni and Shi'ite blocs boycotted the meeting or walked out. The conference, hosted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is designed to encourage political participation and dialogue among Iraq's divided ethnic and religious groups. Daniel Schearf reports for VOA from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference Tuesday in Baghdad with a positive review of the country's sectarian divisions. He said national reconciliation efforts had prevented civil war and stopped fighting between the Sunni and Shi'ite factions.

He praised former insurgent Sunni militias for joining al-Sahwah or "reawakening" councils that are helping improve security in the country.

He says national reconciliation efforts got more than 35,000 former terrorists to separate from al-Qaida and support the government. He says now they are serving in al-Sahwah councils in support of the Iraqi Army and security forces.

Mr. Maliki said 29 al-Sahwah councils were now supporting the government's efforts and a further 13 were in the process of joining.

The U.S. military says the militia groups helped to lower violence in Iraq by more than half since June.

But, Iraq's death toll has jumped since February and sectarian fighting is a daily problem.

Even before the conference started Iraq's largest Sunni political block, al-Tawafiq, said they would not participate because they were not properly invited. The group pulled out of Mr. Maliki's government in August, saying his Shi'ite-led administration was not making enough concessions to the Sunni minority.

A Shi'ite party loyal to the influential anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr walked out of the conference Tuesday.

The spokesman for the al-Sadr party, parliamentarian Nassar al-Rubaie, said the meetings were just propaganda and had no substance.

He says political groups were not informed about the program, they were just invited. He says they entered the conference to prove that they are in favor of national peace, but left because they reject what he calls a "decorative" conference. He says Iraq needs real conferences.

Organizers of the meeting said at least one member of each political group was invited, and that 500 representatives were attending. It was the second attempt by Mr. Maliki to bring together Iraq's tribally divided groups.

The meeting comes just ahead of the five-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which critics blame for unleashing Iraq's sectarian bloodletting.