By Farah Stockman The Boston Globe
Monday 28 April 2008
UMass scholar sets new round of talks.
Washington - After a weekend of closed-door negotiations in Helsinki, a group of rival members of Iraq's parliament and tribal leaders are set to announce today that they will gather in Baghdad for the first time for a further round of talks that they hope will lay the foundation for peace in their troubled country.
"Progress has been made," Padraig O'Malley, the UMass-Boston professor and veteran peace activist who organized the meeting, said in a phone interview from the Finnish capital.
O'Malley said the participants agreed upon all but three of 16 broad principles, which he hopes the Iraqi Parliament will eventually endorse, laying the framework for negotiations to reconcile Iraq's warring parties and militias. He said the participants hoped that that their talks would lead to a detailed agreement on core issues that have plagued Iraq, including disarming militias associated with political parties, protecting the rights of minorities, and reducing corruption in government.
So far, the participants have declined to make details of their discussions public to avoid creating too much debate and acrimony in Iraq, O'Malley said. They are planning to announce their progress at a press conference at the Helsinki airport today before returning to Iraq.
The first meeting organized by O'Malley, held in September of 2007 at an undisclosed location in Helsinki, was kept secret because of security concerns and out of a desire to have participants freely discuss their views without the scrutiny of the media.
Participants at the weekend meeting included Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, a Shi'ite group considered the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the most powerful Shi'ite parties, as well as Fouad Massom, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi Parliament's constitutional review committee, and Usama al-Tikrit, the leader of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic party and a former classmate of Saddam Hussein.
Four tribal sheiks - two Sunni and two Shi'ite - also attended.
One notable absence, however, was that of the representative from the movement loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He had been scheduled to attend but called at the last minute to say he was unable to make the flight. As part of a crackdown ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, supporters of Sadr have been fighting US and Iraqi forces in Sadr City, his Baghdad stronghold, in a battle that has cost dozens of lives.
The weekend's Helsinki meeting was an exercise in unconventional diplomacy. Up until now, most of the reconciliation efforts have been organized by the Arab League, the US State Department, or the Iraqi government. This meeting was organized by O'Malley, the Institute of Global Leadership at Tufts, and the Crisis Management Initiative, a Finnish nongovernmental organization.
O'Malley, who has worked to bring warring factions in Northern Ireland and South Africa together in the past, also invited Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, former South African president Nelson Mandela's negotiator, and Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander, to chair this weekend's meetings.
But O'Malley's effort follows several reconciliation efforts that failed to put the country on a path toward peace. In 2005, the Arab League hosted a national reconciliation conference for Iraq in Cairo, but momentum was lost when follow-up meetings were postponed because of disagreements over who would attend. In 2006, King Abdullah II of Jordan invited Iraqi tribal and religious leaders to a "reconciliation summit," but those talks did not stem the tide of violence. Maliki has held a series of national reconciliation conferences inside Iraq, but they have been plagued by boycotts and political posturing by the various factions.
"Anything that adds to the amount of discussion [between the various parties] is useful," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress. "But I don't think this group has a monopoly on any formula that will lead to a solution that no one else has found yet. There are underlying rifts in the society that no amount of meetings in Europe or elsewhere are going to resolve."
P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who was on President Clinton's National Security Council staff, said that summits organized by nongovernmental entities can help warring parties clarify their views and come closer to hammering out a political solution. But ultimately, he said, the parties "have to unify behind that vision, and that's the toughest part."
He said the success of the effort in Helsinki will depend on whether parties who did not participate torpedo any progress, and whether those who attended are powerful enough to persuade the communities they represent to accept the decisions made at the meetings.
"One question is: What kind of authority do those who are involved actually have?" Crowley said. "Is there anyone there actually representing the Maliki government? The Badr people are there, but do the Badr negotiators actually have some authority?"
Despite the skepticism, O'Malley, who spent much of last week in Baghdad motivating and organizing the Iraqi participants to come to the meeting, remained relentlessly upbeat. He described a scenario in which peace unfolds slowly, in stages, and begins with a small group of committed individuals like those who he met with this weekend. He said the fact that the Iraqis opted to hold the next meeting within three months in Baghdad - along with their South African and Irish facilitators - is a significant sign of their commitment to broker peace.
"Rather than us having to take people to Helsinki, they have said, 'We will do this in Baghdad," he said. "The important thing is that they have taken ownership of it."