CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Iraqi leaders assembled in Cairo on Saturday in an attempt to patch over ethnic and religious fault lines, with the chief of the Arab League warning against allowing the country to slip into "sedition or civil infighting."
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, rejected the inclusion of insurgents or Saddam Hussein loyalists in the country”s political process and declared the insurgency was only delaying the day that U.S.-led forces would withdraw, leaving Iraq as a country with "complete sovereignty and independence."
"Any Iraqi outside this small circle (insurgents or Saddam loyalists) is a partner in the new Iraq. He should find an equal opportunity to contribute in rebuilding it and shaping its democracy," Talabani said.
In opening remarks, Secretary-General Amr Moussa also called for regional and international help to Iraq.
"Protecting Iraq against the danger of slipping toward sedition or civil infighting is in the best interest of the Arabs … . It”s also a Turkish, Iranian and international interest," he said. "No one will gain anything by transforming Iraq into a battleground for regional and international conflicts and tensions," he said.
"This will not happen without everyone”s help to Iraq until it regains its freedom, independence and its full sovereignty on its land and resources and so that the political process can widen to embrace the demands of everyone and win their confidence," Moussa said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Iraq was at a turning point.
"Iraq now is at cross roads and the future of Iraq will depend on national accord that you”ll shape with open minds and hearts, that raise above sects, and religious and racial identity."
Leaders of Iraq”s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish faced serious obstacles even before the U.S.-backed reconciliation conference opened in the Egyptian capital after Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq”s largest Shiite political party, refused to attend. He sent a low-level delegation instead.
Shiites have been skeptical of the conference from the start and have strongly opposed participation by Sunni Arab officials from the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein or from pro-insurgency groups.
Sunni leaders are expected to press ahead with demands that the Shiite-dominated government should agree to a time table for the withdrawal of the foreign troops and drastic amendments to the constitution which was ratified on Oct.15. They also want to "recognize" the resistance and "rebuild" Saddam”s army in order to bring back former regime”s officers.
Shiites and Kurds are, instead, insisting that Sunni leaders should denounce violence and distance themselves from the insurgency.
The Arab League, which is sponsoring the gathering, agreed to exclude those involved in atrocities against Iraqis but has declined to reveal the entire list of participants. Among those known to be invited are representatives of four key Sunni Arab political parties.
Before the conference opened, Moussa had played down expectations. "We should not begin with high or exaggerated expectations," Moussa said.
Moussa invited about 100 Iraqi leaders to the gathering, which aims to prepare for a full reconciliation conference to be held in Iraq,
probably in January. The weekend session is expected to tackle the issue of who will participate in the full conference.
Al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the conference should not be turned into a platform for reconciliation with former Baathists or Sunni extremists whom he called "enemy No. 1 of the Iraqi people."
The League agreed to exclude those involved in atrocities against Iraqis but has declined to reveal the list of participants, raising Shiite fears that supporters of Saddam”s regime might be included.
Iraqi Shiite leaders insisted that no officials from Saddam”s former regime or the raging insurgency could attend the three day gathering, leaving both the League and the Shiite leadership in Iraq sharply divided on acceptable participants.
"Those who have participated in killing Iraqis have no place among us," said Salam al-Maleki, Iraqi minister of transport and representative of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr upon arrival.
Even Shiite liberal leaders like Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, have also rejected the notion. He turned down the invitation.
Al-Hakim sent several aides, including Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of SCIRI”s armed Badr Brigade militia, which is widely despised by Iraq”s Sunni Arab minority.
Moussa traveled to Iraq last month, his first visit since Saddam was ousted in 2003, and met sharp criticism from Shiite leaders, who said the Arab League was acting too late to help in the Iraqi conflict and failed to condemn attacks by Sunni-led insurgents.
Most nations in the 22-member league opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam. The league has since stayed away from Iraq”s political process, in part because some members felt intervening would condone the invasion.
Many in Iraq”s Shiite majority see the league as biased toward the Sunni minority, which forms the backbone of the insurgency "I hope the doubts will be dispersed through goodwill," Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in Cairo.
The U.S. administration has lobbied Iraq”s Arab neighbors to support the conference, which is aimed at persuading Iraq”s Sunni Arab minority to join the political process and find accommodation with the country”s Shiite Muslims and Kurds, who have taken political control after decades domination by Saddam. Eight Arab foreign ministers, members of a League”s special working group on Iraq, will attend the weekend meeting, along with envoys from the United States, Europe, Iran and the United Nations.