Arab League chief condemns insurgent violence in Iraq

Friday, October 21, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The head of the Arab League issued a strong condemnation of insurgent violence in Iraq on Thursday, trying to overcome suspicion of the pan-Arab body from the country's Shiite and Kurdish leaders on his first visit since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

Still, Iraqi leaders did not commit to a reconciliation conference between Iraq's sharply divided Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs that league Secretary-General Amr Moussa is trying to organize, the first major intervention by the Arab League in the Iraq's bloodshed.

Moussa has faced reluctance from the Shiite and Kurdish leaders who lead the government, who have complained that the league has taken too long to seek a role, resent the league's past support for Saddam and are suspicious the body is biased toward Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari questioned who would participate in a conference and suggested Iraqi politicians can address the issues of moderate Sunni Arabs on their own, while anyone connected to insurgents should be barred from participating.

"I don't believe we have a problem with certain parties or groups. Our political process is open and inclusive," he said after meeting Moussa. "We will not have any meeting with those who are involved in killings and the senior members of former regime. But other Baathists we are dealing with them as ordinary people in the state."

He also chided Moussa at a joint press conference, saying an Arab League "stance supporting our political process was late. We say this so we can build for the future. We hope from this visit to mark a new step in Iraqi-Arab relations through the league."

The testy press conference was a rare public airing of differences between Arab leaders, who usually try to keep their disagreements behind closed doors and show a unified face to the outside. That is particularly true with the Arab League, a body that is supposed to promote Arab unity but is often paralyzed by the barely papered-over disputes between its members.

The league -- made up of 21 members, almost all Sunni-dominated nations -- has stayed away from involvement in Iraq's tumultuous post-Saddam changes, in part because many of its members opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion and felt supporting the political process afterward would condone it. Iraq's new leaders have seen this as a refusal to recognize the new Shiite-Kurdish power in the country.

Arab nations have balked at sending ambassadors to Iraq, who were pulled out ahead of the U.S. invasion. After Egypt agreed to send a full ambassador earlier this year, its top diplomat in Baghdad -- who was likely to take the post -- was kidnapped by militants and killed.

An Arab League delegation was attacked by gunmen last week while in the Iraqi capital to prepare Moussa's trip. No one from the delegation was hurt, but two policeman guarding them were killed.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the top Shiite party in Iraq's ruling coalition, criticized the league at a press conference with Moussa for not clearly enough condemning Sunni insurgents, "terrorist groups, and pro-Saddam groups." He complained the league has in the past only condemned "Iraqis' suffering."

"Those statements are heard, but they are not enough when there was no condemnation to those criminals and the groups who committed these operations," he said.

Standing next to al-Hakim, Moussa insisted, "We are against anyone who is fighting the Iraqi people, and the Arab League's stand is clear because anybody harming innocent Iraqis, is committing a very dangerous operation that we would never accept."

Al-Hakim -- in his clerical garb -- nodded, saying, "Well said."

In comments to the Associated Press earlier this week, al-Jaafari suggested the Arab League should focus more on repairing its ties with Iraq, rather than on fixing them among Iraqis.

The league "had better start with the Iraq-Arab dossier. ... We need to open things like reconstruction, political, security and media support," he said.

Government spokesman Laith Kubba on Thursday took a softer approach, saying, "The Arab League has good connections to many parties in Iraq and can use these parties' offices and power to back up the political process. These horizons are welcomed and will witness real support from the Iraqi government."

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