Against all odds

10/28/2005 5:58:11 AM

From the moment he arrived at Baghdad International Airport on Thursday till the moment he flew out of the Suleimaniya International Airport on Monday morning, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa spent every waking hour promoting inter-Iraqi talks aimed at reconciling Iraq's warring factions. It was a task many had described as impossible, not least because, even before broaching the substance of his mission, Moussa had to contain the anger of Iraqis who blame the Arab League for failing to spare Iraq from the misery of sanctions and the brutalities suffered under Saddam Hussein's more than three decades rule, and then of failing to reach out to Iraqis both before and after the US invasion and its consequent blood baths, chaos and threat of national disintegration.

"I believe that through this trip, and through the candid talks I have had with Iraqi officials and leaders, we have managed to send the right message to all Iraqis, underlining the fact that the Arab world, and the Arab League, can act as a safety net for Iraq," said Moussa.

He told reporters accompanying him on his five-day trip to Iraq, which included the cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Arbil and Suleimaniya, that "despite accusations, made on false premises, that we were taking sides in the conflict, the Arab League is on the side of every single Iraqi, regardless of his or her ethnic or religious affiliation."

Moussa's trip to Iraq -- the first such extended visit by a senior Arab official since the invasion, and Moussa's first since he travelled to Baghdad for two days of talks with the now-toppled Iraqi President Saddam in January 2002 -- came as Arab capitals are increasingly voicing concern over a political process that many fear will result in the dismembering of the country and the entrenchment of Iranian influence.

Within Iraq, officials and intellectuals joined in the general scepticism, arguing that the mission had come too late, and would achieve very little. Even the most optimistic conceded that Moussa's trip, agreed between the Arab League and several Arab capitals, would end up being little more than a courtesy call with no lasting political significance. The pessimists foresaw calamity, arguing that the visit could risk Moussa's personal safety and his political career. Any attempt to push for national dialogue in Iraq, they said, was doomed from the start. Both have been proved wrong.

In Iraq, Moussa was well-received by all, including some of his harshest critics. "It was because we expected so much that our position was so tough," said Iraq's Shia Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari.

"We can overcome the period of recriminations and work together to spare Iraq chaos," said Sunni vice-president -- and former president -- Ghazi Al-Yawar.

Moussa appears to have successfully wooed leaders from across the sectarian divide. Shia leader Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim thanked Moussa for the visit, saying "once we blamed the Arab League for not coming to Iraq, now we thank the secretary-general for his efforts and are willing to work with him in Iraq's interest."

These were sentiments echoed by Harith Al-Dari, a leading Sunni figure, who acknowledged that "there is a real need for the reconciliation efforts proposed by the secretary-general."

Even Ayatollah Al-Sistani -- no enthusiast when it comes to Arab stances on Iraq -- welcomed Moussa's efforts and wished him "good luck in his peaceful offices".

But perhaps the warmest welcome came from Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talbani, who pledged to do everything in his power to support Moussa's efforts in promoting reconciliation.

With the exception of the charismatic Shia leader Moqtada Al-Sadr, Moussa seems to have successfully convinced Iraq's factional leaders to come together for a national dialogue conducted under the umbrella of the Arab League. Representatives of many of Iraq's tribes and ethnic and religious groups, including Christians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Sabaens and Yazdies, came at short notice to meet with Moussa for talks on the proposed national dialogue that is intended to be a precursor to a fully blown conference of reconciliation. After the talks the majority of Moussa's interlocutors felt his efforts could encourage militant groups that have taken up arms to fight the US presence in their country to integrate themselves within the political process.

"I have contacts with some of these groups and I can tell you that if they see hope in a political process eventually getting the Americans out of Iraq they might think about joining it," commented one Sunni politician who asked for his name to be withheld.

The first round of the Iraqi national dialogue is tentatively scheduled for the second half of November with the Arab League headquarters the most likely venue. Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has signalled his intention to attend along with other government members representing the different shades of Iraq's ethnic and religious mosaic. Al-Sistani, Al-Dari and Massoud Barazani, prime minister of Iraq's de facto autonomous Kurdish zone, are also expected to send representatives. Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Ahmed Bin Heli will return to Iraq within the next few days in an attempt to garner further support for the reconciliation process. The UN and a number of Arab capitals have also expressed their willingness to send envoys, say sources.

Arab League diplomats accompanying Moussa on his Iraq tour believe the visit has created "a new political mechanism of inter-Iraqi talks sponsored by the Arab League" which will progress in parallel to the on-going political process initiated by the elections, the referendum on the constitution and the forthcoming elections in December.

"These will be complementary tracks: the political process supervised by the UN that aims to establish the state and the one sponsored by the Arab League and supported by the UN, and even the US, that focuses on containing early signs of civil strife in Iraq and re-introducing peaceful co-existence," commented one delegate.

Moussa believes that the new Arab initiative towards Iraq spearheaded by the Arab League has affirmed that Iraq's stability cannot be divorced from the country's Arab context. The Americans, he argues, will have to accommodate the expectations of Iraqi groups that are seeking full sovereignty, and in a way that maintains the unity and stability of Iraq. He said, "the situation in Iraq is critical. Resolving it requires true statesmanship. In Iraq I met true statesmen who can shoulder this task."