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Iraqi Reconciliation Update

I spent most of my day at the J Street conference, but took a few breaks for recreation — in this case two impromptu roundtables with prominent aides to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who happened to be in town. This is a delicate moment in Iraqi politics: in addition to the most destructive bombings in Baghdad in two years rippling through the Iraqi political landscape, the parliament is deadlocked on an election law, raising the tense prospect that Iraq might not be able to hold its second post-Saddam national election under the constitution by the January deadline. For a country without a tradition of the rule of law and in which deep political disputes remain unsettled even after the end of the sectarian war, it’s an unnerving time.

[buttons] Sadiq Rikabi, one of Maliki’s closest political advisers, was in town for a recent U.S.-Iraq business expo. His problem: as much as he praised the “real American commitment” to military withdrawal, the focus on withdrawal “gives the wrong message that the U.S. will leave Iraq, [will] no longer stand beside Iraq,” allowing unnamed neighbors (but meaning Iran and Saudi Arabia) to “play internal Iraqi politics.” He wants to ensure the U.S. “stands with Iraq in the diplomatic field, the political field” and economically while sending the message that withdrawal is the result of “implementing an agreement between two countries,” not the end of the relationship. (A message that, apparently, the Obama administration has not sufficiently sent.)

When I asked him what political developments inside Iraq the outside world might be neglecting, Rikabi gave the anodyne answer that we should “focus on the democratic process itself” and not who wins or loses. That would be lovely — if Iraq could agree on an election law. On the contentious issue of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk — whose undetermined status as either a Kurdish or an Arab-controlled city is a factor in the delay — Rikabi said that Kirkuk “should participate in the elections” with the rest of the country. He added that Maliki, President Jalal Talabani (one of the Kurdish leaders) and Parliamentary Speaker Ayad al-Samarrai had “reached such a compromise” on the issue of timing the elections, which will “hopefully then will be taken up by the parliament.”

A few hours later, across town, Mohammad head of the Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation — Maliki’s main organ for healing Iraq’s sectarian divides — gave a talk to a small gathering at the U.S. Institute of Peace. I got there a bit late, so I missed what I’m told was an undetailed and bland assurance that the integration of the former insurgent militias known as the Sons of Iraq was going well. He praised the creation of 210 so-called tribal support councils around Iraq, with the participation of 5,000 sheikhs, to redress sectarian concerns with the government. Similarly, he emphasized a program to resettle Iraq’s millions of displaced persons — those who were removed during the sectarian cleansing of 2005-6 — in Baghdad and Diyala Province, which includes what he described as a robust jobs program for people who move back home.

Unlike Rikabi, Salman worried openly that the election might not happen on time, and said one of the greatest dangers to Iraq over the next several months would be the prospect of the government continuing on an emergency basis without legal authority if the election is delayed, or if the results are refused. He expressed confidence that the sectarian reconciliation efforts he oversees would continue into the next government, but cautioned (through translation), “We are not an institutional country.”

One thing that caught my attention was Salman’s assurances that the resettlement of displaced persons depended on people presenting documentation of owning their original homes. Were there problems with people claiming homes with insufficient documentation? After all, people ordered by a death squad to leave or be murdered may not have the presence of mind to grab their deeds. Salman, through his team of translators, said he was primarily seeing that problem manifest itself in Diyala, where 12,000 claims on property have been filed, but “we believe these claims are exaggerated,” and in some cases multiple people claim the same home. The reason is that Iraq tends to keep better records in cities like Baghdad than it does agricultural areas like Diyala, which was a prime battleground in the sectarian conflict.

“Diyala is difficult,” Salman conceded, and he was “trying to figure it out.” Like much of Iraq.

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