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."
The Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance is looking around for coalition partners after it won nearly half the vote in Iraq's national elections. Both Shia and Kurdish groups – the other main winner – say they are looking for ways to include the Sunnis in the political process.
The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq announced on Feb. 13 that the Alliance, which was organized at the behest of the country's senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, received more than four million votes – 48 percent of the 8.4 million ballots cast. As expected, this figure – high though it is – does not give the bloc the two-thirds majority it would need to govern without a coalition partner.
Mofaq Rubai, one of the United Iraqi Alliance's candidates, described the results as a "feast" which gave "a reason for Iraqis to celebrate from Kurdistan to Basra."
"The power now lies in the hands of the people, and the 275 members of parliament will decide Iraq's destiny," he said.
The results are still provisional, as parties and candidates have three days to file complaints or appeal against the results before the outcome can be regarded as official. The Kurdish Alliance List, made up of the two major Kurdish parties, came in second with 26 percent of the vote, or more than 2.17 million ballots. This virtually assures the Kurds of a top government post.
In Sulaimaniyah, one of the regional capitals of Iraqi Kurdistan, residents celebrated the results by firing into the air.
"The results are very good and it strengthens the Kurdish position so that it corresponds with the situation in Iraq," said Nawsheerwan Mustafa, a political bureau member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, one of the main Kurdish parties in the Alliance.
The results mean that the Shias and Kurds, two groups that were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, will now hold the balance of power. In third place was the Iraqi List, led by interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, which received more than 1.16 million ballots, 13.8 percent of the vote. Allawi has presented himself as the secular Shia alternative to the United Iraqi Alliance.
Raja al-Khazay, a candidate on the Iraqi List, said the results were disappointing. "There are a lot of good politicians who won't get seats in parliament," she said.
Each bloc list or party will be awarded seats in the 275-member transitional National Assembly in approximate proportion to its share of the national vote. That means the United Iraqi Alliance will get at least 132 seats, the Kurds 71 or more, and the Iraqi List at least 38 seats. A two-thirds majority, or 183 seats, is needed to approve crucial issues before the National Assembly, including the approval of a prime minister and of a draft constitution, which will be the parliaments main duty.
Under the interim constitution, the National Assembly has to appoint a president and two vice-presidents. In turn, the president and his deputies will choose a party or coalition to nominate a prime minister and form a government. The assembly also has to approve the cabinet.
Although the final results have only just been announced, parties and coalitions have been angling for positions in the new government since the Jan. 30 election. In the last two weeks, the main Shia, Kurdish and Sunni parties have been meeting to hammer out deals.
The United Iraqi Alliance says it wants the post of prime minister, and has suggested current finance minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and vice-president Ibrahim Jaafari as candidates for the job. The two men belong to the two main Shia political forces – Mahdi is from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, while Jaafari belongs to the Islamic Dawa Party.
"There is no competition between the parties but there are negotiations," said Rubai. "The issue is not individuals, but politics and strategies. So the strategy for the new Iraq is a federal and united Iraq that covers everybody."
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Alliance List has been pushing for PUK leader Jalal Talabani to be president. The PUK controls the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the KDP, reigns over the western portion.
Al-Khazay said the Iraqi List would try to maximise its position by forming coalitions with the Kurds, with al-Iraqiyun ("the Iraqis"), a Sunni party headed by interim President Ghazi al-Yawar, and with the People's Union, a bloc whose principal constituent is the Iraqi Communist Party.
Al-Iraqiyun is set to receive about five seats, while the People's Union should get two.
Of the estimated 14 million eligible voters, around 60 percent turned out for the elections. But, as expected, many Sunni Arabs stayed at home either to boycott the vote or out of fear.
Turnout for the Sunni Arab community, which accounts for about a fifth of Iraq's population, was much lower than the average. In the western province of Anbar, the mainly Sunni province where the volatile cities of Fallujah and Ramadi are located, only two percent of voters came to the polls. Turnout in the northern province of Ninewa, which includes the troubled city of Mosul, was about 17 percent for the National Assembly ballot (separate provincial elections were held across Iraq the same day).
Mishan al-Jabouri, head of the Liberation and Reconciliation Front, a secular Sunni party, said he was not satisfied with the election results. His party received more than 30,000 votes, which should translate into one parliamentary seat.
"These votes do not represent the people's will," said al-Jabouri. "These are fake elections, which produced this abnormal result."
Both the Kurds and the Shias say they want the Sunni Arabs to be represented in the new political set-up. It has been suggested that the one of the top positions – that of speaker of parliament – could go to the Sunnis. Rubai, of the United Iraqi Alliance, said the Sunnis could not be left out or marginalized, because as such a significant part of the population, they have a major role to play in establishing the state.