BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Iraq’s prime minister reached out to Sunni Arabs at a national reconciliation conference on Saturday, urging Saddam Hussein-era officers to join the new army and urging a review of the ban against members of the former dictator’s ruling party.
But key players on both ends of the Sunni-Shiite divide skipped the meeting, raising doubt that the conference will succeed in healing the country’s wounds.
“We firmly believe that national reconciliation is the only guaranteed path towards security, stability and prosperity. The alternative, God forbid, is death and destruction and the loss of Iraq,” Prime Minister Nuri Maliki said in his opening remarks.
The long-awaited gathering was touted by the Iraqi government and the White House as a chance to rally ethnic, religious and political groups around a common strategy for ending the violence that has spiralled since Maliki took office seven months ago.
At least 23 people were killed Saturday in Iraq, including a Sunni cleric and a Sunni politician who were shot to death in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. Police also found the bodies of 53 men who had been bound and blindfolded before they were shot to death in Baghdad â€” apparently the latest victims of sectarian death squads.
Iraq’s politicians, however, have been unable to come together and the Shiite prime minister faces growing dissent by his coalition partners, including Shiite allies like cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Sadr’s bloc said it was boycotting the two-day meeting, as did two major Sunni groups and former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
“There is no point in holding these conferencesâ€¦ Because the situation is getting worse,” Sadr spokesman Firas Mitairi told a news conference.
Sadr’s absence came amid recent reports that efforts are under way to sideline the anti-US cleric, whose Mehdi Army has been blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence.
Hours before the conference, Iraqi and US forces detained six suspects in a raid and an air strike in the Sadr stronghold of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad. The raid also left one fighter dead and another wounded.
The prime minister addressed the problem of armed factions in his speech, reiterating that they should be disbanded, but he did not offer any new ideas about how to do so.
“There must be a solution to this problem and the militias must be disbanded and integrated into various state institutions,” said Maliki, who has so far resisted US pressure to take concrete measures against the groups.
Maliki also said Iraq has been able to overcome many of the outstanding problems with its neighbours, including US rivals Syria and Iran. Within the next few days, the government will send delegations to visit neighbouring countries to consult with them over “strengthening Iraq’s political process”, he said.
He added that Iraq would call for the convening of a regional conference, depending on the level of readiness by those countries to help stabilise Iraq.
“We refuse to allow Iraq to become a battlefield for regional and international conflicts,” he added.
The White House said Saturday it was encouraged by Maliki’s remarks.
“He reiterated his commitment to bringing militias and insurgents under control and halting the violence. He is clearly in favour of forming an Iraq based on national unity and not individual sects. He repeated his desire for Iraq’s neighbours to play a constructive role in rebuilding the country,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council. “The United States urges the parties to the national reconciliation conference to chart a course that brings stability and security to a unified and democratic Iraq.” Maliki also reached out to the army officers and soldiers who lost their jobs after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam nearly four years ago.
“The new Iraqi army has opened its doors for members of the former army, officers and soldiers, and the national unity government is prepared to absorb those who have the desire to serve the nation,” Maliki said.
He said the government needed “their energies, expertise and skills in order to complete the building of our armed forces”. He imposed few conditions on the return of former military personnel, only cautioning that those allowed to serve in the new army should be loyal to the country and conduct themselves professionally.
He also said the size of the army might limit the number accepted but those unable to join would be given pensions.
Two aides to Maliki, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to disclose information to the media, said Saddam-era officers could apply to be reinstated regardless of their rank. But they said admission would depend on their professional and physical suitability for service as well as the extent of their links to the Baath Party.
The government had previously invited former officers up to the rank of major to join the new army. The outreach and pension offer were apparent concessions to a long-standing demand by Sunni Arab politicians who argue that the neglect of former army soldiers was spreading discontent and pushing them into the arms of the insurgency.
The criticism was echoed in remarks by Saleem Abdullah, a spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front.
“This conference can be successful if its participants have the spirit of reconciliation and the honest desire for unity,” he said, warning that the conference will end in failure “if the practical reality remains the same”. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s former US governor, dissolved Iraq’s 400,000-strong army soon after American forces overthrew Saddam’s regime in April 2003. The decision is widely seen as a mistake because it drove many into opposition.
Maliki also called on parliament to review the “deBaathification” clauses in the constitution adopted last year to ensure what he called the rights of the families of those sacked from government jobs for their membership in the party.
Some Baath Party members not linked to the Sunni-led insurgency, as well as former army officers, were among the delegates, organisers said. But there were no public pronouncements about bringing insurgents who renounce violence into the political process, despite past reports of contact between the government and Sunni-led insurgent groups.