December 1, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 256

The Cairo Preliminary Conference on Reconciliation in Iraq

December 1, 2005 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 256


Under the auspices of the Arab League and at the initiative of its Secretary-General, Dr. Amre Moussa, a preliminary conference on the reconciliation in Iraq was held in Cairo on November 19-21. Underlying the initiative is the belief that Iraq's various ethnic, religious and tribal groups can be brought together under the roof of the Arab League to reconcile their differences and, most importantly perhaps, to find ways to reintegrate the Sunnis and the Sunni-backed insurgency into the political process.

As a preliminary conference, it focused more on procedures - particularly those related to the convening of the full conference scheduled for February/March of next year in Baghdad - than it did on substance. Nevertheless, progress was made regarding the following principles:

· Iraq should maintain its territorial integrity within a federal system

· The participants recognized that the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 15 should be held as scheduled and that everyone should participate in them (no more boycotts by the Sunnis)

  • The participants further recognized the importance of the integration of the Sunni community into the political process
  • A distinction was drawn between al-muqawama al-sharifa [the honorable resistance] and terrorism. Ostensibly, such a distinction legitimizes the role of the resistance as a military factor in the equation, but it also and, perhaps more significantly, opens the door for the leaders of the resistance to take part in the political process.
  • The Arab League, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, could play a constructive role in reconciling the differences between the Iraqi sectarian groups.

This agreement on principles generated some optimism among the Iraqi participants that their differences could be resolved peacefully, as evidenced by the willingness of the participants to talk with each other in a constructive spirit. On the other side of the ledger there remain fundamental issues that separate the three leading ethnic groups - the Shi'a, the Sunnis and the Kurds. These issues are federalism, de-Ba'thification, and the timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces. They are expected to be central to the elections campaign that is underway, and to dominate the public discourse after the elections which will take place on December 15.

Amre Mousa's Reconciliation Initiative

For almost 30 months after the fall of the Saddam regime, the Arab League maintained near-silence regarding the political developments in Iraq. Then, in October 2005, the League's Secretary-General, Amre Moussa, launched his initiative for a conference on national reconciliation in Iraq. There may have been pressure from conservative Arab regimes, namely Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, on Dr. Moussa to prevent the emergence of a Shi'ite dominated regime in Iraq that would operate under the influence of the Iranians or at least in concert with them.

Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries as well, felt the need to bring the Iraqi insurgency fire under control before it spreads and threatens to consume it's neighbors.

Iraqi Criticism of the Initiative

Moussa visited Iraq the last week of October for the first time since the fall of the Saddam regime and, by his own admission, was surprised by the warm welcome he received from most elements of the political spectrum, although the free press of Iraq kept hammering him, and the League, for their historical silence while crimes were being committed against the Iraqi people by the totalitarian Ba'thist regime.

On the eve of Amre Moussa's visit to Baghdad, the Iraqi daily al-Sabah, which often reflects the views of the government, criticized Amre Moussa for failing to condemn the daily car bombs while filling the air with statements against the new constitution which was approved by the people of Iraq in a free and transparent referendum, unlike the fabricated referenda undertaken in most Arab countries. [1]

Such criticism is not unfounded. The Arab League sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq in October 2003. The mission's report, finalized in December of that year and leaked to the press quickly thereafter, highlighted the sectarian issues in Iraq but ignored completely the discovery of mass graves and the crimes of the previous regime. Iraqis viewed the report as a step backward by the League and, worse, as an attempt to inflame sectarian conflicts. [2]

The Iraqi press also questioned the League's commitment to democracy and human rights. Writing in the liberal weekly al-Ahali, Najat al-Sa'id said that "the culture of the Arab League is an outmoded culture" which attributes to imperialism the causes for the backwardness of the Arab countries. This outmoded culture keeps Arab peoples under the heavy hand of dictatorships and prevents democratic evolution. [3]

Support for Moussa's Visit to >Iraq

Notwithstanding the qualms of Iraqis about the Arab League, Moussa's visit to Iraq was quite successful in that he was able to garner the support of many of the feuding groups as well as their agreement to attend the preparatory conference in Cairo. He claims to have had a good meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who supported his initiative. [4] He also went north to Kurdistan to meet with Mas'oud Barazani, the president of the Kurdish region, a significant political move, particularly coming on the heels of President Bush's welcome of Barazani at the White House.

The Participation of Former Ba'thists in the Conference

One highly controversial issue that took on particular significance during Moussa's discussions with the Iraqi leaders was the participation of former Ba'thists in the conference. The Sunni groups view such participation as being necessary to heal wounds; others, particularly the Shi'ite leadership, were strongly opposed to the participation of high-level former members of the Saddam regime who may have committed crimes against the Iraqi people or who may currently be involved in the insurgency. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari has warned against "surprises" at the conference, meaning the participation of Ba'thist elements who may not meet the criteria of selection -i.e., must have no criminal record. [5] While some former Ba'thists attended the conference, there was no indication that their presence was met with controversy about their past conduct.

The Preparatory Conference Meets in Cairo

The Preparatory Conference, which was a first stage toward a much wider conference to be convened later in Iraq, was held at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo for three days, November 19-21, under the chairmanship of Amre Moussa and with the participation, as observers, of the United States, the Russian Federation, France, the European Union, Iraq neighbors, and a number of Arab countries.

The conference's agenda comprised four issues:

  • The timing for convening the full conference
  • The venue -Baghdad, Kurdistan, the Arab League headquarters, or a neighboring country
  • The subjects to be placed on the agenda of the full conference
  • The follow-up mechanism [6]

The Conference was held behind closed doors amidst rising violence, acts of terrorism, and the incessant intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq by its neighbors, in particular Iran and Syria. The closed doors did not, however, prevent leaks, and a variety of statements and press conferences by participants who may have felt the need to reassure their supporters at home that they were not making undue concessions. These reassurances were doubly important in the light of the fact that the national elections were less than a month away, and the fact that many of the participants in the conference are candidates in those elections.

According to news accounts, the first day of the conference was characterized by verbal clashes between the various parties. It is perhaps a reflection of the growing democratic culture in Iraq that the biggest storm was ignited by Minas Ibrahim al-Yousufi, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party who attacked the recently approved constitution as a document dictated by "the occupation forces." His statement caused a number of delegates to leave the conference hall, but they were escorted back by the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa'ud al-Faisal. Al-Yousufi's statement was repudiated by Cardinal Emanuel III, the Patriarch of the Chaldean [Christian] community in Iraq and overseas. [7]

By the second day and following a number of bilateral meetings between the participants, the mood in the conference changed quite noticeably. One should mention, in particular, a meeting between the Prime Minister Dr. Ibrahim al-Ja'fari and Hareth al-Dhari, the Secretary-General of the leading Sunni organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars and a subsequent meeting between al-Dhari and Hadi al-'Ameri, the head of the Badr organization (the Shi'ite militia, now called "organization" for cosmetic reasons). Al-Badr remains the military arm of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). [8]

The Final Communiqué

Upon the conclusion of the preparatory conference, the Arab League issued a communiqué which appears to reflect a consensus of the Iraqi participants and which offers something for everyone.

The Kurds got the one thing that matters most to them: the right of the Iraqi people to make their democratic choices within the framework of a pluralistic and federal system. The words about the federal system were added to the communiqué at the very last minute to ensure that the Kurds would not withdraw from the conference.

The Shi'a also have reasons to be satisfied. The communiqué

  • Calls for a broad participation of all Iraqis in the December 15 elections
  • Offers a compromise on the withdrawal of multinational forces according to a timetable (presumably to be negotiated) rather than a forthright withdrawal demanded by the Sunnis
  • Condemns terrorism in all its forms
  • Condemns the notion of takfir, propagated by the Zarqawi group according to which Muslims may be declared infidels or apostates by other Muslims
  • Recommends the removal of barriers to the political process (meaning that the Sunnis will participate fully in the elections.)

The Sunnis may have gained the most:

  • A scheduled (though not immediate) withdrawal of foreign forces coupled with a commitment to build the Iraqi army and police forces to assume responsibility for the security of the country
  • A distinction drawn between terrorism and resistance. While terrorism in all its forms was condemned, the conference legitimized the resistance.
  • The release of political prisoners (details to be negotiated)
  • An agreement to investigate and punish those responsible for the torture of prisoners (almost entirely Sunnis) in the basement of the Ministry of Interior whose pictures, showing signs of torture, were made public

Above all, the Sunnis, represented by the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Islamic Party, were recognized as equal partners in the political process. [9]

The concessions made to the Sunnis, particularly the agreement to negotiate a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, were necessary to co-opt the Sunnis back into the political system. The Sunnis themselves may have come to the realization that participating in the elections offers them a good prospect of emerging as the second largest faction in the National Assembly. By contrast, persisting in the insurgency could lead to their military annihilation and economic ruin. It remains to be seen whether the Sunni elements who participated in the preparatory conference are strong power brokers and whether they can exercise any influence over the resistance.

The Sunnis must have also reasoned that if they fail to climb aboard, they stand to be at the mercy of a sectarian army of more than 300,000 soldiers, predominantly Shi'ite and Kurds, in which they have no representation and no influence.

Other Facets of the Communiqué

The communiqué also called on the Arab countries to support Iraq by:

  • Expediting the process of forgiving Iraqi debts in conformity with the decisions of the Paris Club (made up of members countries of the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development, also referred to as donor countries which negotiate bilateral agreements with developing countries for debt rescheduling or debt forgiveness)
  • Taking active part in the training of Iraqis in all sectors of the state (the reference here is mainly to military and police training)
  • Strengthening the Arab diplomatic presence in Iraq, subject to appropriate security protection
  • Providing humanitarian aid to Iraq
  • Providing assistance to control the borders and to prevent "infiltrators" (meaning those crossing the Syrian border seeking jihad and martyrdom in Iraq)

The Full Reconciliation Conference

It was agreed that the full reconciliation conference will be held in Baghdad during the last week of February and the first week of March. A committee under the chairmanship of the Algerian Minister of State Abd al-Aziz Bilkhadem (the President of Algeria is currently the rotational president of the heads of Arab states) will prepare the agenda for the full conference. Further, the committee will address several points, including:

  • Expanding the political process to include all forces (meaning the resistance movements which opposed such a process)
  • Setting the criteria for a timetable for the departure of the multinational forces
  • Establishing the criteria for participating in the conference

The Communiqué recommends measures required for confidence building, including:

  • Avoiding the exchange of accusations which, on the eve of competitive elections, will require heroic self-control
  • Avoiding the use of political and religious pulpits to stir up hate and division
  • Creating a suitable environment to carry the elections peacefully.

Leading Figures in the Conference

About 80 Iraqi political, tribal, and religious figures attended the preparatory conference, among them: President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies, Ghazi al-Yawer and Adil abd al-Mahdi, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, the former prime minister Ayad Alawi, the secretary-general of the Association of Muslim Scholars (a leading Sunni organization) Harith al-Dhari, the secretary general of the communist party Hamid Majid Moussa and representatives of the head of SCIRI Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, "His Eminence" Muqtada al-Sadr, and Mas'oud Barazani, the President of the Region of Kurdistan. [10]

A key figure in the Iraq government, Dr. Ahmad al-Chalabi, the Deputy Prime Minister, declined to attend. According to his spokesman, Haydar al-Moussawi, Chalabi's refusal to attend the conference was not because it was held in Cairo but because it was held outside Iraq. " [11]

Also absent, but represented, was Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI. No statement was made explaining his absence. Another political figure with sterling liberal credentials, Mithal al-Alousi, declined to participate because the conference "is held under the umbrella of Arab countries that have supported terrorism." In addition, the Arab League, according to al-Alousi, "has no support in the Iraqi street."

The Position of the United States

The United States has every reason to be satisfied if the Iraqis themselves reach an agreement that can provide an exit strategy for U.S. military forces in Iraq. On the other hand, they could not be content with legitimating the resistance which could mean the killing of American soldiers. There are signs, however, that a start has been made by both sides - representatives of some of the resistance groups and the United States - to find a political solution to the conflict as evidenced by a statement made by the American ambassador to Iraq on November 28 that the Iraqi conflict cannot be resolved by military means alone.


The preparatory conference on reconciliation and the full conference that would follow could turn into a road map for a free and democratic Iraq.

Obviously, many of the agreements and compromises were struck behind closed doors and in bilateral discussions of representatives of various political and ethnic groups. No one has emerged as a total victor or a total loser which may serve in the process of creating more confidence building measures.

While the ceiling of expectations for the preparatory conference was kept low to avoid even greater conflict in the case of its failure, the results, so far, indicate a higher level of optimism than at the start of the conference.

A major positive sign of the post-conference environment is the joint appearance in a press conference of the secretary-general of the Shi'ite Badr Orgnization and the Sunni deputy secretary general of the major Sunni organization, the "Congress of the Iraqi People." In the press conference, an agreement has been reached on the collaboration of the Sunni organizations in the future, while the resistance was recognized as a legitimate partner for the political process.

Another Sunni leader, the head of the Islamic Party, Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, declared that the Sunnis will form a special committee to "negotiate with the honorable resistance" to bring into the political process. He said the Sunni position after the Cairo conference will undergo an important change in that "the honorable resistance" will warn the Zarqawi group to suspend terrorism or face "disciplinary action in the field." [12] Most important of all, the Sunnis will participate fully in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

The mood of moderate optimism which prevailed during and immediately after the preparatory conference, and the various agreements reached, are but a first step in what is bound to be a long and arduous process to achieve stability and nation-building. However, if allowed to run out of control, the elections campaign can quickly stir enough animosities to undo some of the progress achieved in Cairo and can even exacerbate the conflict, particularly between the Shi'a and the Sunni, resulting in expanded violence. The next two weeks leading to the elections are bound to be critical for the future of the country.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is the Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] Al-Sabah (Baghdad), October 23, 2005.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), October 14, 2005.

[3] Al-Ahali (Baghdad), weekly, November 9, 2005.

[4] Al-Fourat (Baghdad), October 23, 2005.

[5] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), November 18, 2005.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 15, 2005.

[7] Al-Mada (Baghdad), November 22, 2005.

[8] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), November 20, 2005.

[9] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), November 25, 2005.

[10] The full list of participants is published in

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 18, 2005.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), November 24, 2005.

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