Was Cairo Meet First Step Toward Peace Talks?

The final communiqué of the Cairo Conference of Iraqi political groups last week appears to be a tentative first step in a process that could eventually lead to a peace settlement in Iraq.

The Shi’ite leadership of Iraq may not be ready to negotiate with the Sunni insurgents yet, but its behavior at the conference suggests that it is not ruling out that option.

The surprising agreement between the Sunnis and government representatives on setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the legitimacy of "resistance" to the occupation was the result of a carefully crafted compromise between factions that remain bitter rivals with different visions of how the war should end.

The language on the withdrawal of coalition forces, for example, cleverly combined the Sunni demand for a timetable for withdrawal with the Shi’ite and Kurdish insistence on increasing the nation’s ability to "get control of the security situation." The key sentence in the communiqué begins, "We demand the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with a timetable" – certainly a major concession to the Sunnis.

The Sunnis, in turn, made a concession to the Shi’ites and Kurds by supporting their insistence on adequate Iraqi forces. Specifically, they accepted a demand for "the establishment of an immediate national program for rebuilding the armed forces through drills, preparation, and being armed, on a sound basis that will allow it to guard Iraq’s borders and to get control of the security situation."

The phrase "rebuilding the armed forces" was undoubtedly proposed by Sunni negotiators, however. It implies the need for restructuring the military by allowing former Ba’athist officers in Saddam Hussein’s army to play a role. In the past, Shi’ite leaders have rejected any role for Ba’athists in the government institutions.

The most difficult issue negotiated in Cairo was how to characterize the Sunni resistance and its relationship to terrorism in Iraq. The initial position of the government at the meeting was to lump together those who continue to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces with the al-Qaeda foreign jihadists as "terrorists," suggesting that the Sunni resistance organizations must lay down their arms before any deal is possible.

The Sunni representatives, on the other hand, insisted that resistance to the occupation must be recognized as legitimate.

The biggest surprise, therefore, was the acceptance by Kurdish and Shi’ite representatives of the statement that "resistance is a legitimate right for all people," which implies recognition that the Sunni resistance is legitimate politically. The Sunnis agreed that "terrorism does not represent legitimate resistance," and that attacks on nonmilitary targets are indeed "terrorism."

That statement is an obvious jab at the foreign jihadists who have routinely targeted civilians, particularly Shi’ites. The communiqué also condemned "takfir" – the practice of declaring some Iraqis to be "infidels."

Shi’ite leaders apparently saw Sunni approval of those positions as a political victory, clearly dividing them from the al-Qaeda organization in Iraq. But in fact the Sunni insurgent organizations have never hidden their opposition to the tactics and ideology of the foreign jihadists in the country. Evidence of strained relations between the largely secular insurgents and the al-Qaeda-led groups has continued to grow ever since the insurgency took shape.

Other provisions of the communiqué also contributed to the creation of a framework within which future peace talks could take place. The document includes a commitment to Iraq’s unity, although its meaning was left undefined. It called for releasing all "innocent detainees," who have not been convicted by courts, and for the investigation of all allegations of torture and holding accountable those responsible.

Finally, it demanded "an immediate stop to arbitrary raids and arrests without a documented judicial order." These points coincide with demands made previously by insurgent groups through Sunni intermediaries.

The Cairo communiqué takes on greater significance because it was apparently approved by leaders of some of major resistance organizations as well as by representatives of the government. Among the Sunni representatives at the conference was Harith al-Dhari, the secretary-general of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, who is generally agreed to have a direct link to several resistance organizations through his son Muthanna.

Furthermore, some insurgent leaders were reportedly in the corridors during the negotiation of the communiqué. Sunni former interim government minister Ayham al-Samarrai announced the week before the meeting that leaders of several insurgent organizations, whom he did not identify, would attend the meeting.

The government refused to agree to their formal participation in the conference, but al-Samarrai told investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss that several of those resistance group leaders were actually present on the fringes of the meeting.

The outcome of the conference, in the context of a broader "reconciliation conference" scheduled for February, raises the question of whether it could lead to more direct peace talks between the government and Sunni resistance groups. That possibility is certain to be the subject of serious discussions within the government between Kurdish and Shi’ite leaders.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, took a significant step toward direct talks at the conference, when he said, "If those who call themselves the Iraqi resistance desire to contact me, I shall welcome them."

The London-based newspaper Al-Hayat reported at the end of the conference that insurgent groups had already given their conditions for peace directly to Talabani. Talabani apparently was acting without the agreement of his Shi’ite allies in the government. Militant Shi’ite party leaders have nursed hopes for a longer U.S. occupation that would continue to weaken the Sunnis while building up Shi’ite forces. They have been more adamant about ruling out such negotiations in the past and did not join Talabani in Cairo in agreeing to meet with Sunni resistance leaders. Even the Shi’ite leaders may be rethinking their strategy of seeking to impose a unilateral military solution on the Sunnis, however. The same day the Cairo conference ended, Shi’ite Interior Minister Bayan Jabr suggested that occupation forces might leave Iraq by the end of 2006 – a radical departure from previous government policy toward the U.S. presence. This new Shi’ite willingness to agree with Sunnis on a short-term withdrawal is not the result of increased confidence that the Sunni insurgency is on the verge of defeat. Rather it is probably being driven by the dramatic erosion of popular support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the obvious conclusion that only a limited period of tolerance for U.S. troop presence remains.

In light of the domestic U.S. political realities, key Shi’ite leaders may have concluded, however reluctantly, that they can no longer ignore the option of peace negotiations.

The Cairo communiqué is still very far from being a peace agreement. Major political obstacles could still delay or even halt permanently the process before it began. But it suggests for the first time that peace negotiations between the warring factions are within the realm of possibility.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.