BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s prime minister Saturday urged the country’s myriad tribes to join his national reconciliation plan to stamp out sectarian strife and terrorism, warning that U.S. forces are unlikely to withdraw until Iraqis are united.
“Brothers, the national reconciliation is a wide door, open to all those who want to take part in rebuilding the country,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a speech to hundreds of tribal leaders at a national unity conference.
It is the first of four conference planned across Iraq by the new national reconciliation committee, which al-Maliki set up last month to bridge the deep divisions among the country’s major Muslim sects, the Shiite and Sunnis, and to bring Sunni Arab insurgents into the political mainstream.
“Liberating the country from any foreign existence and controlling the enemies can’t be achieved without a real national unity among Iraqis and this is the role for our tribes,” said al-Maliki, a Shiite, touching on the widespread displeasure over the U.S. presence here.
“These tribes have to play a significant role in fighting terrorists, saboteurs and infiltrators,” he told the leaders, most of them wearing checkered black-and-white or red-and-white head headscarf. Some were in Western suits, and others in traditional Kurdish loose trousers.
“Yes to unity, yes to Iraq,” a few tribal chiefs chanted in between the speeches. “We are all brothers in this country,” they shouted.
Tribes are a key element of the Iraqi society, wielding enormous influence over clan members. Iraqis, whether Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, owe as much allegiance to their tribes as to the religious leaders of their sects.
Iraq’s sectarian violence, an exhausting cycle of tit-for-tat attacks, started after a Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, creating a new headache for the four-month-old Shiite-dominated unity government already reeling from frequent bomb attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents.
The two-pronged violence left nearly 10,000 people dead in May, June and July. However, violence appeared to have dipped in August, thanks to a massive security operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad, where much of the fighting has taken place.
The minority Sunni Arabs hope to restore the power they held during the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, who had had repressed all others peoples — Arab Shiites, the mostly Sunni ethnic Kurds, Chaldean Christians and ethnic Turkomen.
“Iraq, at this stage, needs all its sons. There is no difference among Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, Muslims or Christians, Sunnis or Shiites,” al-Maliki said. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t have different opinions, but we have to rely on dialogue not weapons,” he said.
Dr. Akram al-Hakim, the minister for national dialogue, said all Iraqi politicians of different backgrounds must make concessions to each other to achieve unity.
“But at the same time, I say that such concessions should not violate our national and constitutional principles,” he said. “The reconciliation cannot be achieved by appeasing one group and discriminating against another.”
But reconciliation seems a distant goal for now as none of the major Sunni Arab insurgent groups has publicly agreed to join. Also, many of the Shiite militias are controlled by legislators themselves.
There is also the question of how to deal with Sunni Arab insurgents. Al-Maliki and his fellow Shiites says insurgents can be given an amnesty provided they have not killed any Iraqi. But given the widespread killings they would be hard pressed to find a militant who does not have blood on his hands.
Differences among Shiites themselves is another hurdle. On Friday, clashes erupted between gunmen loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite cleric, and Muqtada al-Sadr, another Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia commands a large following. At least two people were killed in those clashes over the control of al-Batha mosque, a Shiite shrine that was wrested from Sunnis earlier, in the southern town of Batha, local police said.
On Saturday, gunmen shot dead the Shiite owner of a bakery and a policemen in separate incidents in western Baghdad, said police 1st Lt. Maithem Abdel-Razaq.