CAIRO, Egypt – Leaders of Iraq’s sharply divided Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis called Monday for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces in the country and said Iraq’s opposition has a “legitimate right” of resistance.
The final communique, hammered out at the end of three days of negotiations at a preparatory reconciliation conference under the auspices of the Arab League, condemned terrorism but was a clear acknowledgment of the Sunni position that insurgents should not be labeled as terrorists if their operations do not target innocent civilians or institutions designed to provide for the welfare of Iraqi citizens.
The participants in Cairo agreed on “calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops according to a timetable, through putting in place an immediate national program to rebuild the armed forces, … control the borders and the security situation” and end terror attacks.
The conference was attended by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers, as well as leading Sunni politicians.
Sunni leaders have been pressing the Shiite-majority government to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The statement recognized that goal, but did not lay down a specific time – reflecting instead the government’s stance that Iraqi security forces must be built up first.
On Monday, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr suggested U.S.-led forces should be able to leave Iraq by the end of next year, saying 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.
“By the middle of next year we will be 75 percent done in building our forces and by the end of next year it will be fully ready,” he told the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera.
Debate in Washington over when to bring troops home turned bitter last week after decorated Vietnam War vet Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and estimated a pull-out could be complete within six months. Republicans rejected Murtha’s position.
In Egypt, the final communique’s attempt to define terrorism omitted any reference to attacks against U.S. or Iraqi forces. Delegates from across the political and religious spectrum said the omission was intentional. They spoke anonymously, saying they feared retribution.
“Though resistance is a legitimate right for all people, terrorism does not represent resistance. Therefore, we condemn terrorism and acts of violence, killing and kidnapping targeting Iraqi citizens and humanitarian, civil, government institutions, national resources and houses of worships,” the document said.
The final communique also stressed participants’ commitment to Iraq’s unity and called for the release of all “innocent detainees” who have not been convicted by courts. It asked that allegations of torture against prisoners be investigated and those responsible be held accountable.
The statement also demanded “an immediate end to arbitrary raids and arrests without a documented judicial order.”
The communique included no means for implementing its provisions, leaving it unclear what it will mean in reality other than to stand as a symbol of a first step toward bringing the feuding parties together in an agreement in principle.
“We are committed to this statement as far as it is in the best interests of the Iraqi people,” said Harith al-Dhari, leader of the powerful Association of Muslim Scholars, a hard-line Sunni group. He said he had reservations about the document as a whole, and delegates said he had again expressed strong opposition to the concept of federalism enshrined in Iraq’s new constitution.
The gathering was part of a U.S.-backed league attempt to bring the communities closer together and assure Sunni Arab participation in a political process now dominated by Iraq’s Shiite majority and large Kurdish minority.
The conference also decided on broad conditions for selecting delegates to a wider reconciliation gathering in the last week of February or the first week of March in Iraq. It essentially opens the way for all those who are willing to renounce violence against fellow Iraqis.
Shiites had been strongly opposed to participation in the conference by Sunni Arab officials from the former Saddam regime or from pro-insurgency groups. That objection seemed to have been glossed over in the communique.
The Cairo meeting was marred by differences between participants at times, and at one point Shiite and Kurdish delegates stormed out of a closed session when one of the speakers said they had sold out to the Americans.