Iraq launches last-ditch peace talks

Prime Minister Maliki hopes that the national reconciliation conference will halt Iraq's seemingly inexorable slide into fratricidal bloodshed.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2006 15:28 IST

Iraq's beleaguered coalition government was to launch another attempt to draw the shattered country's warring factions into a peace process on Saturday, with the launch of broad-based talks.

Preparations for the national reconciliation conference have been low-key, but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition government hopes it will halt Iraq's seemingly inexorable slide into fratricidal bloodshed.

The government has invited 300 leaders from various groups, including some which have so far stood outside Iraq's post-Saddam political process, but it was not clear how many would brave Baghdad's violence and make the trip.

Overnight, Maliki called US President George W Bush by videolink to brief him about the talks, which the White House hopes will be a step toward ending the violence and allowing America's 150,000-strong force to go home.

"Prime Minister Maliki outlined plans for the national reconciliation conference," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.

The Iraqi leader also "talked about his desire, and the desire of many in Iraq, for a larger core of Iraqi political leaders to come together for the common objective of stabilising Iraq and promoting the rule of law", he said.

In a 45-minute discussion via secure video, Maliki "also talked about providing greater security, in particular in Baghdad, by going after all sources of violence, including insurgents and militias", Johndroe said.

Bush said he was "encouraged" by the good meetings he had had recently with the Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and top Sunni official Tareq al-Hashemi, and reiterated his support for Maliki, he said.

According to Iraqi officials, one of the key planks of the effort will be the possible inclusion of former members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's disbanded Baath Party, some of whom may be allowed to return to public life.

This will raise hackles among hardline Shiite militants, whose majority community was persecuted by Saddam's Sunni-led regime, but is seen by many observers as a key first step in calming the violent insurgency.

Tens of thousands of Baathists and Saddam-era military officers were purged from public service in the aftermath of the March 2003 US-led invasion and many went on to swell the ranks of groups fighting the new Shiite-led government.

There is now a growing consensus that more junior party members not proven to have supported Saddam-era atrocities or the post-invasion rebellion should be allowed into the political process as a gesture of reconciliation.

Nasser al-Ani, a Sunni lawmaker and the official spokesman of the conference, confirmed that Baathists living abroad were among those invited.

"Probably some Baathists will attend," he said. "At the very least they will send representatives."

Abbas al-Bayati, a member of Iraq's dominant Shiite parliamentary bloc, went further, adding that many Baathists might be allowed to return to their former positions in government, universities and state-run companies.

"Individual Baathists will participate. They will explain their point of view and their positions," he confirmed.

"The conference will limit the number of those to whom the law of de-Baathification applies to 2,000 people, he added.

"The other former Baathists will either be considered retired and receive pensions or can get their old jobs back."

There has been no discussion of removing Iraq's constitutional ban on the Baath Party as a political entity, but individual former members may be allowed back into a civil service starved of their administrative experience.

First Published: Dec 16, 2006 15:28 IST