By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 23, 2006; A15
BAGHDAD, July 22 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's program to bridge the widening divisions among Iraq's religious, ethnic and political factions took its first concrete step forward Saturday. A high-level reconciliation panel held its first meeting, with its members voicing optimism about the task ahead while offering fresh evidence of how difficult it could prove.
The Supreme Committee for Reconciliation and National Dialogue, intended to bring together representatives from the widest possible cross-section of Iraqi society, met inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. Afterward Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani met with reporters, and the prime minister proclaimed that "coordination and dialogue based on democracy had found their way to the light."
The panel's first session brought no new pronouncements; rather, Maliki said, its role would be one of gradual "initiative launching," with practical measures and details to be worked out over time.
Maliki, who heads a ruling coalition of Shiite religious parties, stressed that the committee was open to all Iraqis and said he had been in contact with some of the country's armed factions about their participation. However, as with his initial announcement of a 24-point reconciliation plan one month ago, differences emerged over which armed groups might be excluded.
Maliki stopped short of including groups that had killed Iraqis or Americans, saying "all those whose hands were tainted with blood should be brought to justice." But Mashhadani, who represents a Sunni Arab coalition, said "anyone can join the reconciliation process."
"If we punish a person who killed an American soldier, who's considered an occupier, we also should punish the American soldier who killed an Iraqi who fought against occupation," Mashhadani said, adding: "If a person killed an American to defend his country, in another country they would build a statue of him."
The U.S. military reported that two American soldiers were killed Saturday. One died in eastern Baghdad when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb; the other was a victim of small-arms fire south of Baghdad. Neither was identified.
The divisions among Iraqi factions were likewise visible on the streets of Baghdad. In the Furat district of western Baghdad, gunmen in two cars without license plates attacked a group of Shiite construction workers, killing seven, according to Lt. Col. Salman Abood of the Interior Ministry. Later, a mortar attack in Amil, a mostly Sunni area, killed five people, news services reported.
U.S. troops clashed with Shiite militiamen in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, in a three-hour gunbattle in which 15 gunmen and an Iraqi soldier were killed, U.S. officials and Iraqis said, the Associated Press reported. Also, in the western province of Anbar, 10 Iraqi soldiers traveling in a convoy near the village of Karmah were killed by a roadside bomb, according to the AP.
Special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.