The final communiqué of the Cairo Conference
of Iraqi political groups last week appears to be a tentative first step in
a process that could eventually lead to a peace settlement in Iraq.
The Shi'ite leadership of Iraq may not be ready to negotiate with the Sunni
insurgents yet, but its behavior at the conference suggests that it is not ruling
out that option.
The surprising agreement between the Sunnis and government representatives
on setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the legitimacy
of "resistance" to the occupation was the result of a carefully crafted
compromise between factions that remain bitter rivals with different visions
of how the war should end.
The language on the withdrawal of coalition forces, for example, cleverly combined
the Sunni demand for a timetable for withdrawal with the Shi'ite and Kurdish
insistence on increasing the nation's ability to "get control of the security
situation." The key sentence in the communiqué begins, "We
demand the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with a timetable"
certainly a major concession to the Sunnis.
The Sunnis, in turn, made a concession to the Shi'ites and Kurds by supporting
their insistence on adequate Iraqi forces. Specifically, they accepted a demand
for "the establishment of an immediate national program for rebuilding
the armed forces through drills, preparation, and being armed, on a sound basis
that will allow it to guard Iraq's borders and to get control of the security
The phrase "rebuilding the armed forces" was undoubtedly proposed
by Sunni negotiators, however. It implies the need for restructuring the military
by allowing former Ba'athist officers in Saddam Hussein's army to play a role.
In the past, Shi'ite leaders have rejected any role for Ba'athists in the government
The most difficult issue negotiated in Cairo was how to characterize the Sunni
resistance and its relationship to terrorism in Iraq. The initial position of
the government at the meeting was to lump together those who continue to attack
U.S. and Iraqi forces with the al-Qaeda foreign jihadists as "terrorists,"
suggesting that the Sunni resistance organizations must lay down their arms
before any deal is possible.
The Sunni representatives, on the other hand, insisted that resistance to the
occupation must be recognized as legitimate.
The biggest surprise, therefore, was the acceptance by Kurdish and Shi'ite representatives
of the statement that "resistance is a legitimate right for all people,"
which implies recognition that the Sunni resistance is legitimate politically.
The Sunnis agreed that "terrorism does not represent legitimate resistance,"
and that attacks on nonmilitary targets are indeed "terrorism."
That statement is an obvious jab at the foreign jihadists who have routinely
targeted civilians, particularly Shi'ites. The communiqué also condemned
"takfir" the practice of declaring some Iraqis to be "infidels."
Shi'ite leaders apparently saw Sunni approval of those positions as a political
victory, clearly dividing them from the al-Qaeda organization in Iraq. But in
fact the Sunni insurgent organizations have never hidden their opposition to
the tactics and ideology of the foreign jihadists in the country. Evidence of
strained relations between the largely secular insurgents and the al-Qaeda-led
groups has continued to grow ever since the insurgency took shape.
Other provisions of the communiqué also contributed to the creation
of a framework within which future peace talks could take place. The document
includes a commitment to Iraq's unity, although its meaning was left undefined.
It called for releasing all "innocent detainees," who have not been
convicted by courts, and for the investigation of all allegations of torture
and holding accountable those responsible.
Finally, it demanded "an immediate stop to arbitrary raids and arrests
without a documented judicial order." These points coincide with demands
made previously by insurgent groups through Sunni intermediaries.
The Cairo communiqué takes on greater significance because it was apparently
approved by leaders of some of major resistance organizations as well as by
representatives of the government. Among the Sunni representatives at the conference
was Harith al-Dhari, the secretary-general of the influential Association of
Muslim Scholars, who is generally agreed to have a direct link to several resistance
organizations through his son Muthanna.
Furthermore, some insurgent leaders were reportedly in the corridors during
the negotiation of the communiqué. Sunni former interim government minister
Ayham al-Samarrai announced the week before the meeting that leaders of several
insurgent organizations, whom he did not identify, would attend the meeting.
The government refused to agree to their formal participation in the conference,
but al-Samarrai told investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss that several of
those resistance group leaders were actually present on the fringes of the meeting.
The outcome of the conference, in the context of a broader "reconciliation
conference" scheduled for February, raises the question of whether it could
lead to more direct peace talks between the government and Sunni resistance
groups. That possibility is certain to be the subject of serious discussions
within the government between Kurdish and Shi'ite leaders.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, took a significant step toward direct talks
at the conference, when he said, "If those who call themselves the Iraqi
resistance desire to contact me, I shall welcome them."
The London-based newspaper Al-Hayat reported at the end of the conference
that insurgent groups had already given their conditions for peace directly
to Talabani. Talabani apparently was acting without the agreement of his Shi'ite
allies in the government. Militant Shi'ite party leaders have nursed hopes for
a longer U.S. occupation that would continue to weaken the Sunnis while building
up Shi'ite forces. They have been more adamant about ruling out such negotiations
in the past and did not join Talabani in Cairo in agreeing to meet with Sunni
resistance leaders. Even the Shi'ite leaders may be rethinking their strategy
of seeking to impose a unilateral military solution on the Sunnis, however.
The same day the Cairo conference ended, Shi'ite Interior Minister Bayan Jabr
suggested that occupation forces might leave Iraq by the end of 2006
a radical departure from previous government policy toward the U.S. presence.
This new Shi'ite willingness to agree with Sunnis on a short-term withdrawal
is not the result of increased confidence that the Sunni insurgency is on the
verge of defeat. Rather it is probably being driven by the dramatic erosion
of popular support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the obvious conclusion
that only a limited period of tolerance for U.S. troop presence remains.
In light of the domestic U.S. political realities, key Shi'ite leaders may have
concluded, however reluctantly, that they can no longer ignore the option of
The Cairo communiqué is still very far from being a peace agreement.
Major political obstacles could still delay or even halt permanently the process
before it began. But it suggests for the first time that peace negotiations
between the warring factions are within the realm of possibility.
(Inter Press Service)