Sunday, March 16, 2008

Iraq on the Damascus-summit agenda

There was a surprising announcement of a "reconciliation conference" to take place in Baghdad tomorrow (Tuesday March 18), but taking various reports together it seems clear this won't break any new ground. On the other hand, there will likely be Iraq-political discussions at the Damascus Arab summit the end of this month, maybe even an "Arab initiative for Iraq".

The government newspaper AlSabah leads this morning (Monday March 17) with this: Prime Minister Maliki, when he attends the Beirut summit of Arab heads of state the end of this month, is going to deliver a message as follows: "Iraq has succeeded in defeating terror, and now we are expecting strong support from the Arab capitals." And he will invite Arab heads of state to come visit Baghdad to see for themselves the relative improvement in security that has been achieved. Maliki is also expected to make proposal(s) for Arab-state investment in Iraq, in addition to urging them to open embassies in Baghdad, and so on.

Only after headlining Maliki's plans for the Damascus summit, does the AlSabah journalist get around to noting that preparations have been completed for the holding of the "second national reconciliation conference for political entities" in Baghdad on Tuesday. (The first was held in Dec 06: See the section "National Reconciliation" in my 06 year-end summary).

AlHayat offers more detail respecting the Tuesday get-together, the main point being that political-party attendance won't be much different from what it was last December: Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties will be enthusiastic participants, but a spokesman for the secular Iraqi List said political conditions aren't right for this, and his group won't be attending. In a similar vein Adnan Dulaimi, head of the main Sunni bloc in parliament said this won't be much different from similar earlier conferences, which were all superficial. Still, he said, his group will present a paper calling for speedy implementation of the amnesty law, action on constitutional amendments, and other issues. There wasn't any comment from the Dawa or Sadrist parties.

AlHayat, in its concluding remarks on this, reviews the fact that there has been a whole series of secret meetings, at the Black Sea in Jordan, two in Beirut, one each in Rome and Morocco, including Baath people and people connected with the armed resistance groups, all of them focused on three issues: (1) expanding the political process; (2) presence of foreign military forces in Iraq; and (3) certain amendments to the constitution. The journalist says these were all thought of as preparatory for an "expanded conference to be held in Baghdad".

So based on AlSabah and Al-Hayat, it is a little unclear where the boundary is between Maliki's PR operations (the Tuesday meeting will be on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam) and the actual serious talks, if there are any.

Azzaman provides some enlightenment. It quotes an Arab League official, Ahmed bin Hilla, deputy general secretary, and the person assigned to work on the Iraq issue, who says the discussion process is in fact ongoing--for instance he has recently been talking to Harith Al-Dhari and also with ex-Baath military officers in Amman--and there is no particular timetable. The Arab League official said he will be holding discussions with other expatriates in Damascus and in Sanaa. This is all in preparation for an eventual hoped-for conference that would hopefully bring everyone together--those involved in the GreenZone already, and those outside--and the journalist helpfully explains: The Tuesday meeting is not that hoped-for conference (although Hilla said the Arab League is grateful for an invitation to it and will be happy to attend).

Hilla said he will, however, be reporting to his boss before the Damascus summit, and "the General Secretary will be presenting a report to the Damascus summit, ahead of the formulation of an Arab initiative for Iraq, to be announced by the Arab heads of state at Damascus the end of this month". He doesn't say anything about directions an "Arab initiative for Iraq" might take.

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