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Rice Struggles to Spur Iraq Unity

November 12, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari on Friday appeared to reject having some Sunni Arab nationalists with ties to the former regime participate in an Arab League-sponsored gathering on Iraqi reconciliation, despite Bush administration efforts to bridge the country's deep divisions and encourage political inclusion.

"We will not accept that this conference will become a platform for terrorists and high-level officials of the Baathist regime," the Iraqi leader told reporters after a half-hour meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He did not elaborate.

The Arab League conference had been planned for this week but was delayed to get more groups to the table. Jafari's Shiite Muslim-dominated interim government fears that the drive for reconciliation could blunt demands for accountability for crimes allegedly committed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-led regime.

A preliminary meeting is scheduled for Nov. 19 in Cairo. Some Iraqis have derided the upcoming conference as a forum for Sunni Arabs with ties to the insurgency, given the strong presence of Sunni-dominated nations in the Arab League. A recent political cartoon showed a conference participant rushing from the check-in counter of Iraqi Airways, telling passersby that he had forgotten to detonate his car bomb.

Jafari made the comment during a previously unannounced daylong visit to Iraq by Rice. Her itinerary included a stop in the northern city of Mosul in addition to Baghdad, where she also met with a broad cross-section of Sunni leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Abed Mutlak Jibouri, a senior civil servant during the Hussein era.

In Mosul and Baghdad, Rice delivered personal messages of thanks in meetings with American military and embassy personnel and praised Iraqis who risked danger to cast ballots this year. But the central political goal of her brief stop here appeared to be to broaden the political arena to embrace as many groups as possible before the Dec. 15 national parliamentary election.

For the United States, coaxing more Sunnis into the political process carries two potential benefits. It gives more people a stake in the nascent democracy and could shrink the pool of recruits for the insurgency, which in part has drawn those who felt excluded from politics. With Jafari at her side, Rice argued that Iraq's diversity could be an asset. "In a democratic process, these differences can be a strength rather than a handicap," she said.

Rice said it was up to Iraqis to find "the balance between inclusion and reconciliation and justice" as the nation's political system moved forward. The U.S. has backed the Arab League initiative.

Rice avoided publicly airing the tensions that have developed between the U.S. and Iraq's first popularly elected government in decades. But in her private meeting with prominent Sunni leaders in Baghdad and earlier in talks with provincial officials in Mosul, the secretary of State consistently argued that only a broad reconciliation and greater inclusiveness could produce the strongly representative government that would survive, U.S. officials said.

"It was her clear message," said a U.S. diplomat who attended the meetings but requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

During a trip to Iraq in the spring, Rice was instrumental in coaxing the newly elected transitional government to add Sunnis to the committee drafting a national constitution. The Sunnis had a disproportionately small presence on the panel because they had largely boycotted the nation's elections in January.

Despite Rice's arguments, however, emotions remain strong among many Shiites. In a recent interview, Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi said he told Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa that the government was not prepared to work with anyone associated with Hussein's Baath Party or leaders of the old regime.

"So these people will not be allowed to enter the conference or any other persons who are Baathists or others with known connections with criminal acts," Abawi said.

In Mosul, Rice presided over a ceremony inaugurating the first civilian-military unit deployed in Iraq that specialized in accelerating local and regional development. The unit, known as a Provincial Reconstruction Team, includes diplomats to smooth contacts with local people, aid workers to assess project opportunities and troops for security.

Times staff writers Solomon Moore and Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.

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