Iraqi Factions Seek Timetable for U.S. Pullout
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
CAIRO, Nov. 21 - For the first time, Iraq's political factions on Monday collectively called for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces, in a moment of consensus that comes as the Bush administration battles pressure at home to commit itself to a pullout schedule.
The announcement, made at the conclusion of a reconciliation conference here backed by the Arab League, was a public reaching out by Shiites, who now dominate Iraq's government, to Sunni Arabs on the eve of parliamentary elections that have been put on shaky ground by weeks of sectarian violence.
About 100 Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders, many of whom will run in the election on Dec. 15, signed a closing memorandum on Monday that "demands a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable, dependent on an immediate national program for rebuilding the security forces," the statement said.
"The Iraqi people are looking forward to the day when foreign forces will leave Iraq, when its armed and security forces will be rebuilt and when they can enjoy peace and stability and an end to terrorism," it continued.
The meeting was intended as preparation for a much larger conference in Iraq in late February. The recommendations made here are to be the starting ground for that meeting.
In Washington, Justin Higgins, a State Department spokesman, said, "The United States supports the basic foundation of the conference and we certainly support ongoing discussion among Iraq's various political and religious communities."
But regarding troop withdrawal, he said: "Multinational forces are present in Iraq under a mandate from the U.N. Security Council. As President Bush has said, the coalition remains committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve security and stability as they rebuild their country. We will stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer."
Shiite leaders have long maintained that a pullout should be done according to milestones, and not before Iraqi security forces are fully operational. The closing statement upheld a Sunni demand for a pullout, while preserving aspects of Shiite demands, but did not specify when a withdrawal should begin, making it more of a symbolic gesture than a concrete agenda item that could be followed up by the Iraqi government.
The statement, while condemning the wave of terrorism that has engulfed Iraq, also broadly acknowledged a general right to resist foreign occupation. That was another effort to compromise with Sunnis who had sought to legitimize the insurgency. The statement condemned terror attacks and religious backing for them, and it demanded the release of innocent prisoners and an investigation into reports of torture.
Almost all the delegates belong to political parties that represent the spectrum of Iraqi politics.
But while Sunni parties hinted at their lines of communication to nationalist and tribal insurgents, none would admit any link to militants like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has led a wave of suicide bombings through his group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
The wording was a partial victory for Iraq's Sunni politicians, who have long demanded that the United States commit to a scheduled pullout.
While the wording stopped short of condoning armed resistance to the occupation, it broadly acknowledged that "national resistance is a legitimate right of all nations."
"This is the first time that something like this is said collectively and in public," Muhammad Bashar al-Faythi, spokesman for the hard-line Sunni Muslim Scholars Council, said Monday, referring to the timetable. "We managed to convince them of the importance of a timed pullout."
On Monday, Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said American-led forces should be able to leave Iraq by the end of next year, adding that the one-year extension of the mandate for the multinational force in Iraq by the United Nations Security Council earlier this month could be the last, The Associated Press reported.
"By mid-next year, we will be 75 percent done in building our forces, and by the end of next year it will be fully ready," Mr. Jabr told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel.
The Monday statement offered Shiite politicians concessions, too, by condemning terrorism against Shiites, condemning trumped-up theological arguments for attacks on Shiites, and legitimizing the political process that has made Shiite leaders the dominant political force in Iraq.
"Some of the sides that were especially sensitive have opened up with the support of the Arab League," said Sheik Humam Hamoudi, a Shiite who headed the Iraqi constitution-drafting committee. "We now clearly see that Sunnis have entered politics, and this meeting won't change that."
"If this meeting did anything, it was to comfort the Arabs and the Iraqi Sunnis about the whole process," he added. "The solution first is that Sunnis enter politics, then they enter government, then we deliver services to their areas, and then we build a strong government."
The statement also called for the release of all prisoners who had not been charged or were deemed innocent, and asked Arab League members to cancel Iraq's debts and assist in building Iraqi security forces.
Perhaps the biggest winner of the meeting was the 22-member Arab League itself, which has entered the political scene in Iraq hoping to repeat its success in 1989, when it brokered an end to Lebanon's 15-year civil war in a similar conference.
The Arab League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, said Monday that the results of the meeting were a success, but he warned that expectations should remain modest.
"This is a success for the most part," he told reporters. "We succeeded in 70 percent of the issues. We will move step by step, but what happened was very significant."
The Iraqi politicians thrashed out their differences in the most open debate about the country's future yet. Starting Saturday, they wasted no time expressing their complaints and differences, after more than two years of sectarian violence.
"Even if there is no agreement, we will have accomplished a conversation," Iraq's interim president, Jalal Talabani, said Sunday. Mr. Talabani and other senior members of the government refrained from taking a direct part in closed-door sessions of the three-day conference.
The meeting ultimately centered on Iraq's insurgency and its causes, seeking to goad Sunnis to lay down their weapons and join the political system, while forcing Shiite politicians to acknowledge Sunni grievances. On Sunday, Mr. Talabani said he was willing to meet Iraqi insurgents if they dropped their weapons.
From the start, the meeting was beset by controversy as many, especially Shiites, objected to plans to invite former Baath Party officials to take part. Even the statement's release was delayed Monday because of last-minute objections by Sunni leaders. But with some diplomacy, which included shuttling from the general assembly to Mr. Moussa's offices for private talks, a compromise was reached Monday evening.