Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has for months been promoting a national reconciliation conference in Baghdad to demonstrate his belief that national reconciliation has already been achieved. About 250 personalities were invited to the conference, which was carefully timed to coincide with the 5th anniversary of the war and with the visits of Cheney and McCain. At the conference, reading easily from the Cheney-McCain stay the course script (while rebuking General Petraeus fairly directly), Maliki declared the political process a success, "telling delegates that Iraq was now healed and the threat of civil war was a thing of the past".
Unfortunately, the Sunni Accordance Front and Iyad Allawi's Iraqi Bloc boycotted, and the Sadrists walked out. All stated, rather forcefully, that they did not see the political process as a success or national reconciliation as achieved. Maliki responded that this draws the line between "friends and enemies", drawing no distinction between his government and Iraq itself. Several leaders of the Anbar Salvation Council did attend, including Ali Hatem and Hamed al-Hayess (suggesting that the arrest warrant on them won't be served any time soon). But Hatem wasn't impressed: "I didn't stay any longer than it took me to smoke my cigarette. It was a total failure, because the Iraqi politicians are a failure." This must be the bottom-up reconciliation I keep hearing about.
I expect that interpretations of this conference will divide along predictable lines. Optimists will say that at least Maliki is trying, and that the inclusion of the ASC folks will build the chances for reconciliation from the bottom up. Pessimists will say that the boycotts and walkouts were the most notable thing about the conference, and that those boycotts happened precisely because Maliki had failed to deliver on the crucial issues for political accomodation.
Meanwhile, the US apparently successfully mediated a week's extension (until March 24) of the deadline imposed by Hatem and Hayess for the Islamic Party to surrender its control of local councils and leave Anbar or be expelled by force. Both the ASC leaders and the IIP are claiming popular support, and each scoffs at the other's demands; the ASC leaders imposed 8 conditions for a reconciliation, while the IIP leaders say that the threats have changed nothing. Observers (including, I suspect, the Americans doing the mediating) might wonder why the Anbar Salvation Council doesn't just cool it until the provincial elections slated for October. If they are so confident of their popular support, why not just wait 6 months and then win power at the ballot box rather than trying to seize it through threats of force?
I expect that interpretations of this course of events will divide along predictable lines. Optimists will point to the growing assertiveness of the ASC as a positive sign of the emergence of new, more representative and more accomodating Sunni elites, and the avoidance of bloodshed (for now) as a sign that the political differences can be managed. Pessimists will point to the ASC's evident disregard for legal niceties and willingness to threaten force to gain power, and worry that the need for the United States to play this direct, heavy-handed mediating role demonstrates how the current U.S. strategy will make it harder, not easier, to disengage any time soon.
And on it goes...