I spent the morning with yet another group of visiting Iraqis at the USIP. This one has been gestating for a long time: it was the first public appearance of members of the track 2 reconciliation initiative overseen by Ambassador Richard Murphy, with Randa Salim of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue and the Italian organization Palmo (?) over the last year and a half. The panel featured Fryad Rwandzi (a Kurdish member of Parliament), Omar Abd al-Sattar (a Sunni member of Parliament from the Islamic Iraqi Party), and Sheikh Balasim Yahya (described as a leader of a popular support committee in Diyala from the Tamimi tribe). A representative of Dawa pulled out when the Dawa party collapsed last week in order to fight his political wars in Baghdad.
Since there has been some feverish speculation about these meetings in some of the Arab media and on a few blogs, I was glad that this initiative finally went public and the real story can finally be told. It's a lot less glamorous or nefarious than it has been built up to be. Like most track 2 dialogues, it seems to have been useful as a forum for dialogue outside the formal reconciliation process overseen by the Maliki government where ideas could be explored away from public scrutiny - building common ground rather than necessarily negotiating specific agreements. And like most track 2 dialogues, I suspect that the greatest impact was probably on the participants themselves... not a small thing, to be sure, but neither the grand conspiracy nor the great hope that many had projected on to it. Based on my conversations with him over the last year, this is just as Ambassador Murphy expected.
As the tireless organizer Randa Slim explained, the Dialogue initiative launched in 2006 in Istanbul as a non-official, track 2 process outside of the public eye which included 24 Iraqis representing almost all political trends both inside and outside the political process (several others, who they didn't name, refused to participate despite repeated outreach efforts). It then moved to Beirut in 2007, followed by 4 more - all outside of Iraq for the sake of secrecy, and all with the same participants working on the same agenda in a genuinely sustained dialogue. Slim reported that the first two meetings included members of the opposition outside the political process but that they dropped out after news of the meetings leaked to the media and they received death threats from within their own organizations. In these meetings they produced a six part "road map" for political reconciliation, which they presented as evidence that such a consensus across political and sectarian lines is possible... even if there's little chance of its being implemented.
The speakers didn't actually say all that much about the reconciliation dialogue though, instead opting to each present their own assessment of the current status of national reconciliation. Mostly, they argued that reconciliation at the level of the political parties in Parliament had made some progress, despite the continuing challenges, while relations between those inside the political process and those outside remained difficult. They tried to dismiss issues of reconciliation at the popular level, based on the ongoing and deep historical relations between Sunnis and Shia, instead blaming the violence and other problems on political parties, foreign troublemakers, militias, and al-Qaeda. They praised Maliki's decision to go after Sadr and the militias, and spoke hopefully about the future.
Some interesting points did come out of the discussion, that I'll just note here.
Rwadzi stated with considerable confidence that the provincial elections could not be held this year, primarily for technical reasons - the inability to come to agreement on an electoral system, the lack of usable databases or effective voter registration, the need to contract electoral assistance, and so on. He thought that February or March 2009 might be a reasonable goal. There was some interesting discussion of the argument over closed vs open list systems. The speakers generally agreed that the people preferred open list and the pollitical parties preferred closed list, but that there were also problems raised by the constitutionally required quotas for women and minorities (which are very difficult to guarantee with an open list).
On the question of refugees and the internally displaced, Sattar strongly argued that the normalization of Iraq could never take place until the displaced returned to their original homes. He dismissed official statistics on the return of refugees and IDPs to this point as propaganda and lies. He dismissed arguments that sectarian separation was necessary for security - once the militias and al-Qaeda were driven out, he claimed, there would be no problems between Sunni and Shia.
Finally, on the question of US withdrawal from Iraq, the speakers seemed somewhat ambivalent. They all strongly defended Iraqi sovereignty in the long-term security negotiations, and wanted some kind of horizon for the US presence. Rwandzi stressed that withdrawal should be a decision taken by both sides and negotiated, not imposed unilaterally. Several speakers raised questions about the role of Iran and the real nature of US-Iranian relations. Both Rwandzi and Sattar stated quite bluntly that any agreement would have to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament - not a referendum, not an executive order.
I came away with
questions about how representative the group really was, and - despite
the presence of Shaykh Yehya - the extent to which they were driven
more by the common concerns of the Green Zone political class than by a
wider Iraqi consensus. But mostly, it was nice once again to hear from a different group of Iraqis in DC than
usual - particularly in a public forum.