By Joshua Partlow and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 18 -- A conference intended to bring together Iraq's rival sectarian groups foundered Tuesday when the leading Sunni political bloc boycotted the event and reiterated its demands for greater participation in the Shiite-led government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference here in the Green Zone, the fortified seat of government and the U.S. diplomatic mission, by saying that reconciliation among rival factions is the "only rescue boat and the best solution to build a federal democratic Iraq."
"We seriously regret that some stand watching and others try to bring down the political process and obstruct the work of the government," said Maliki, who is Shiite. "At a time when their patriotic duty requires them to help and support the government."
National reconciliation here has always been primarily about bringing Shiites and Sunnis into closer political partnership, a chief reason the Bush administration increased U.S. troop levels last year. But the boycott of the Baghdad conference by the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni political bloc, illustrated how divided the two groups remain.
The walkout came a day after Vice President Cheney, on a visit to Baghdad, said the improvement in Iraq's security and political situation was "phenomenal" and "remarkable." But Sunni leaders warned Tuesday that reconciliation remained elusive.
"We are used to the prime minister speaking in a beautiful way about reconciliation and brotherhood. That's all well, but on the ground there are a lot of obstacles he has put in the way of reconciliation," said Alaa Makki, a Sunni parliament member with the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the Accordance Front.
Makki said his Sunni colleagues boycotted the conference because certain Sunni political and tribal leaders were not invited. He said the boycott was also meant to underscore the fact that their basic demands -- greater participation in the political process and in the security forces -- remain unmet.
He criticized the government's position of limiting the number of U.S.-backed Sunni volunteer fighters to be incorporated into the predominantly Shiite Iraqi security forces.
"The army is mainly from one component of the Iraqi people, the police also," he said. "We want this to be distributed in a fair way and to give us chances to have a role in controlling security, at least in our provinces."
Shiite politicians loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were more dramatic in rejecting the conference, arriving before it began and departing once it was underway. Smaller political parties also avoided the meeting.
Sadr's Mahdi Army militia is involved in a power struggle in southern Iraq with the Iraqi security forces, some of them aligned with the rival militia, the Badr Organization. Liwa Smaysim, a leader of the Sadrist political bloc, said its members chose to walk out of the conference because the central government is not enforcing arrest warrants against some senior government and security officials in southern cities.
"Where is the rule of law and where is the constitution that they are talking about?" he said.
In the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday, a car bomb killed three Iraqis and wounded 40 when it blew up outside an electronics store, destroying the four-story building, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
In Babil province, a roadside bomb exploded near a patrol of volunteer Sunni fighters aligned with U.S. forces, killing one of the fighters and injuring another, a provincial police spokesman said.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.