Hopes Fade for Iraqi Peace Plan

BAGHDAD -- Hopes that a national reconciliation project for Iraq will work are fading due to disagreements over the plan, coupled with an upsurge in violence, according to politicians and ordinary Iraqis.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a sweeping call for reconciliation and dialogue with a 24-point plan on June 26 which some hoped would bring the country's warring factions together and help Iraq transcend the increasing sectarian violence.

Maliki proposed an amnesty for insurgents on condition that they have not killed Iraqi civilians or multinational forces -- although the latter point has proved controversial. He also pledged to release thousands of prisoners, review the committee responsible for "de-Baathification," dissolve armed militias and open a dialogue with groups that have boycotted politics since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in 2003.

Hundreds of prisoners have been released and negotiations are taking place with insurgent groups, militias and political leaders. It is unclear which groups are involved in the current talks. But members of the National Assembly warn that progress on Maliki's plan has slowed to a crawl, while a national reconciliation conference sponsored by the Arab League is continually being postponed.

"This project isn't moving forward," said Mahmood Othman, a parliamentarian from the Kurdistan Alliance. "The negotiating sides can't agree on anything, even definitions."

Othman and Ridha Jawad Taqi, a parliamentary deputy from Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, of which the prime minister is a member, said the main hurdles include deciding which groups and actions should be defined as terrorist and which as resistance. Some organisations, including the powerful Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, have rejected Maliki's plan because it does not extend amnesty to individuals who have fought the US-led multinational forces.

"The militant groups involved believe in the right of resistance against the occupier, and at the same time they say they aren't terrorists or takfiri [people who accuse others of not being Muslims]," said Taqi.

Wounds from the past are not easily healed. Othman noted that some groups such as Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, refuse to negotiate with Baathists "whether or not their hands are stained with Iraqi blood." The Shia community suffered enormously under Saddam's regime, some of whose supporters are now involved in the insurgency.

Sunni Arabs are believed to be leading the insurgency directed against the Iraqi government, the multinational forces and Shias. On the other side, Shia militias are believed to have infiltrated the interior ministry and to have formed death squads to kill Sunni Arabs. Some of the Shia militias are also opposed to the foreign troop presence.

The definitions are therefore politically loaded. According to Othman, Shia leaders define certain Sunni Arab groups as terrorists, while some Sunnis described armed Shia groups as "militias" -- meaning they should be disarmed. Shia political forces with armed wings view themselves as nationalists.

The National Accord Front is one of the Sunni Arab-led groups that endorsed Maliki's plan and is involved in the talks. Like the other members of parliament interviewed by IWPR, the National Accord Front's Shadha al-Abusi refused to call the plan a failure.

"Relentless efforts are being made to ensure that national reconciliation will be a success, and to calm the crisis and the situation on the Iraqi street," she said.

From al-Abusi's perspective, the main problems lie in dissolving the Shia militias, include Sadr's forces.

Samia Aziz, who represents the Kurdistan Alliance in parliament, believes that if Maliki's plan is to succeed, it will need the backing of four de facto powers that currently dominate Iraq: the government, the political parties, the clerics and tribal figures.

"An agreement by these groups will halt the terrorism which is ongoing and which serves a foreign agenda that does not distinguish between Sunni and Shia," said Aziz, who also warned that if these groups do not sign up to the reconciliation project, "the Iraqi street cannot be controlled."

Despite the blockages, there has been a degree of progress on Maliki's plan. The parliamentary committee dealing with reconciliation met for the first time last weekend, and Saudi Arabia is to host talks between senior Iraqi clerics, who are expected to pledge to stop the bloodshed. Maliki has visited neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which have ties with Iraq's powerful tribal leaders.

Abusi noted that preparations are now under way for reconciliation conference, which is now expected to take place in Baghdad in August. The meeting was first scheduled for February this year. However, such technicalities mean little to the Iraqi citizens who continue suffer from the chaos. Government figures indicate that about 6,000 people were killed in May and June as sectarian violence rose.

"It's been two weeks since my shop ran out of goods, and I can't go to the Jamila wholesale markets because it's close to Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods and the roads are unsafe," said Abbas Sayid Ali, a shop owner in Baghdad's al-Mamun neighbourhood. "There are bogus checkpoints along the way, and people are being killed because of their IDs. If you are a Sunni passing through a Shia neighbourhood, you will be killed -- and vice versa," he added.

Mohammed Abid, a civil servant in the city, said, "The kidnappings, murders and threats continue. It seems there's no end to it, and things are getting worse. National reconciliation isn't being put into practice on the ground."

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