Iraqi factions advance pullout

Leaders collectively call for timetable for withdrawal of troops


CAIRO, EGYPT --For the first time, Iraq's political factions collectively called yesterday 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 to a pullout schedule.

The announcement, made at the conclusion of a reconciliation conference in Cairo backed by the Arab League, was a public reaching out by Shiites, who now dominate Iraq's government, to Sunni Arabs ahead 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 Dec. 15 elections, signed a closing memorandum yesterday 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."

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. This was another effort to compromise with Sunnis who have sought to legitimize the insurgency. The statement condemned terrorist attacks and religious backing for it, and it demanded the release of innocent prisoners and an investigation into allegations of torture.

Almost all of 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 such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has led a deadly wave of suicide bombings through his group, al Qaida in Iraq.

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 last evening, referring to the timetable. "We managed to convince them of the importance of a timed pullout."

Yesterday, Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said that U.S.-led forces should be able to leave Iraq by the end of next year, noting that the one-year extension of the mandate for the multinational force in Iraq by the U.N. Security Council 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," Jabr told Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel.

Yesterday's statement offered Shiite politicians concessions, too, by condemning the wave of terrorism against Shiites, condemning trumped-up theological arguments for attacks on Shiites, and ultimately legitimizing the political process that has made Shiite politicians 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 cleric who was chairman of the 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 agreed statement also called for the release of all prisoners who have not been charged or are deemed innocent, and called on Arab League members to cancel Iraq's debts and assist in building Iraqi security forces.

Perhaps the biggest winner of the meeting is the 22-member Arab League itself, which has entered the political scene in Iraq hoping to repeat the success of the organization 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 yesterday that the results of the meeting were a success, but he warned that expectations should still remain modest.

"This is a success for the most part," Moussa told reporters. "We succeeded in 70 percent of the issues. We will move step by step, but what happened was very significant."

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