Saudis to Play Big Role at Iraq Summit
BAGHDADKey players at this week's Iraq stabilization conference will be the nation's Sunni-led neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, whose assistance may be contingent on signs that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is advancing measures for national reconciliation.
The Saudis have called on Iraq's prime minister to do more to reach out to the Sunni minority. But legislation to ease prohibition on the mostly Sunni former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party and to set up an oil revenue-sharing process across sectarian linestwo key pieces of the reconciliation agendaremain stalled in the Iraqi legislature. Further, foreign investors are awaiting passage of oil legislation that will set up a new national oil company and clarify terms under which foreign companies will operate.
The Iraqi government is under pressure from the United States to make progress on these measures. The Bush administration has publicly called for faster action, and the Democratic-led Congress is considering a revised plan to pay for the war while requiring Iraq to meet benchmarks, such as the oil and de-Baathification reforms.
Mohammed Ahmed, spokesman for Iraq's parliament, says its legislators have continued to show up for every scheduled session despite a suicide bombing in the building's cafeteria last month.
"That is a sign that legislators are committed to moving ahead," he says.
A member of the moderate Shiite Fadila Party, Basam Sharif, says the parliament may work through June but not all summer, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged during his recent visit here.
"We are supposed to have three months off," he says. "We may work for one [summer month], as we did last year."
Prospects for quick passage of de-Baathification reform appear dim. Sharif says he favors barring former top officials from official positions for only a limited time. "I have many Sunni friends. We are all Iraqis," he says.
But he is an exception: The Fadila Party left the governing coalition over what it saw as increasing sectarian policies. Sharif says the prime minister told him a month ago that the government's de-Baathification proposal would be forthcoming, but it is still bogged down in negotiations. Meanwhile, Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi, head of Iraq's de-Baathification Commission, and Shiite parties are pushing a version that does not offer any new incentives to Sunnis.
"A national project to save Iraq is needed. The problem is those who are following a sectarian agenda," says Sharif. "The Sunni also want to return to positions of authority and are willing to use violence to get that."
Sharif and the Fadila Party are a rare voice of moderation in Iraq's tense and bloody landscape of Shiite parties who fear a Sunni comeback and the Sunnis who are not reconciled to their fall from dominance.
More typical is the reaction of Nassar al-Rubaie, a leading member of the radical Shiite movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and key backers of the current government. He views the entire issue as a U.S.-imposed demand and does not even acknowledge that there is a need to provide encouragement to Sunnis.
"We do not accept others' imposing rules for us," he says. "Can we impose rules to ban someone from the U.S. government?"
A U.S. official here says progress has been made in reaching out to former regime officials even without new legislationfour versions of which are now before parliament. More than 500 officers in Saddam Hussein's military have been brought back to serve in the new force and 400 more are in the training pipeline.