Iraqi premier resists inviting Sunni Arabs

Al-Jaafari seems to reject Baathists' presence at reconciliation meeting


BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari appeared yesterday to reject having some Sunni Arab nationals with ties to the former regime participate in an Arab League-sponsored process of 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 reportedly delayed to get more groups to the table. Al-Jaafari's Shiite Muslim-dominated interim government fears that the drive for reconciliation could blunt the need for accountability for crimes allegedly committed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-led regime.

A preliminary meeting is scheduled for Nov. 19 in Cairo, Egypt. 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.

Al-Jaafari's comment came during a previously unannounced daylong visit to Iraq by Rice that included a stop in the northern city of Mosul in addition to Baghdad, where she also met with a broad cross section of Sunni Arab leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Abd Mutlaq al-Juburi, once 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 the courage of Iraqi voters. But the central political goal of her brief stop here appeared to be to broaden the political arena to include more Iraqi groups in advance of the Dec. 15 national parliamentary elections.

For the United States, coaxing more Sunnis into the political process carries two potential benefits. It gives more people a stake in the nascent democratic political system and shrinks the pool of potential recruits to the insurgency, which in part has drawn those who felt excluded from the political process. Standing next to al-Jaafari, she argued that Iraq's diversity could easily become an asset.

"In a democratic process, these differences can be a strength rather than a handicap," she said.

Moments before al-Jaafari's comments, Rice said it was up to the Iraqis to find what she called "the balance between inclusion and reconciliation and justice" as its political system moved forward. The U.S. has backed the Arab League initiative.

Rice's response avoided a public airing of tensions that have developed between the U.S. and Iraq's first popularly elected government in decades. But in her private meeting in Baghdad with prominent Sunni leaders and earlier in talks with provincial government officials in Mosul, the secretary of state consistently pressed the argument that only a broad reconciliation and greater inclusion could produce the kind of strong representative government capable of surviving, according to American officials.

Despite Rice's arguments for inclusiveness, however, feelings remain strong among many Shiites. In a recent interview, Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi said he told Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa that the government was not prepared to include anybody associated with Saddam Hussein's Baath Party or leaders of the old regime.

Tyler Marshall writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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