By Nancy Trejos and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 17, 2006
BAGHDAD, Dec. 16 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on members of former President Saddam Hussein's disbanded army to join Iraq's new security forces in an effort to restore peace to the war-racked country.
Maliki's remarks came at the beginning of a two-day national reconciliation conference intended to unite ethnic, religious and political groups behind a strategy for ending the sectarian warfare that kills scores of civilians each day.
His decision to welcome back members of the former Sunni Arab-dominated army is a key concession. In another conciliatory move, Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, urged political leaders to review the law that banned loyalists of Hussein's Baath Party from working in government and to ensure protections for their families.
The former U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi army after U.S.-led forces toppled Hussein's government, leaving a pool of unemployed Sunnis to swell the ranks of the insurgency.
"The new Iraqi army has opened its doors to the members of the former army, whether officers or enlisted men," Maliki said. "The national unity government is ready to absorb those who have the desire to serve their country on a professional basis."
Junior officers from Hussein's army had already been allowed into the new force. Maliki's invitation on Saturday was more far-reaching and would apply to officers of all ranks. He said soldiers and officers would be reintegrated into the army as long as there was space for them and a need for their expertise. Those who do not return would receive pensions, he said.
More than 250 representatives from various political blocs attended the meeting, which is scheduled to continue Sunday in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Organizers would not release a list of participants but said some Baathists with no ties to the Sunni insurgency were present.
"Reconciliation is the lifesaver which will lead us to the shores of safety, because the alternative is nothing but death and destruction," Maliki said.
It was unclear, however, how much progress the conference's participants could make given that some key leaders boycotted it. The most notable absence was that of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls a powerful bloc in parliament as well as the militia believed to be driving much of the violence. As the meeting was beginning on Saturday, a representative from the Iraqi National Accord, the party of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, said the group was withdrawing from the conference because it felt important groups were excluded.
Organizers of the conference said they extended invitations to all political, ethnic and religious groups, including opponents of the government. They said they were disappointed that some had not accepted the invitation.
"We don't feel we had all the groups in attendance," said Ali Dabbagh, a government spokesman. "We think there should be more conferences on the issues."
Many political leaders and observers consider reintegrating Baathists into Iraqi institutions a key element in any strategy to calm the insurgency. But it has many critics.
"It's unfair, and it's caused a lot of problems, and for us, I think it's a huge obstacle to reconciliation," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish leader who did not attend the conference.
Maliki said the government would distinguish between Baathists who had not committed crimes against civilians and those who had. "We must differentiate between the two types so that the first group would not be exposed to injustice, nor the second group escape due punishment," he said.
Maliki said the Iraqi government had reached an agreement with the U.S.-led coalition to speed up the transfer of more authority to Iraqi forces.
"The government is realizing the time has come to take over all the responsibility and the security of the country," he said.
Participants said they expected to discuss various issues such as disarming militias, reshuffling the cabinet and granting amnesties to insurgents.
Mithal Alousi, a member of a secular party, said he would support a limited amnesty for Iraqis who are willing to admit their crimes and participate in the political process.
"I have lost two sons. I know how painful the situation is," he said. "I would give amnesty to the people who have killed my sons."
Iraqi forces, with the help of U.S.-led forces, have stepped up their efforts to tamp down the violence in Baghdad. On Saturday, they arrested six people in Sadr City, a Shiite stronghold, while trying to capture the suspected leader of an armed group that has kidnapped and killed civilians and committed other crimes, the U.S. military said. An airstrike killed one suspect and wounded another, the military said.
The U.S. military also announced that three American soldiers were killed and one wounded north of Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded near one of their vehicles as they were clearing a road.