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Iraq factions jointly call for troop withdrawal { November 21 2005 }

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November 21, 2005
Iraqi Factions Call for Timetable for U.S. Withdrawal

CAIRO, Nov. 21 - For the first time, Iraq's political factions collectively called today for a timetable for the 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 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 in December, signed a closing memorandum on today that "demands a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable, together with 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 the Sunni demand, but did not specify when a withdrawal should begin, making it more of a symbolic gesture than a concrete demand that would 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 terror attacks and religious backing for it, and it demanded the release of innocent prisoners.

Almost all the delegates belong to political parties that represent the spectrum of Iraqi politics.

But while Sunni parties acknowledged 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 deadly 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 right of all nations."

"This is the first time that something like this is said collectively and in public," said Mohammad Bashar al Faythi, spokesman for hard-line Sunni Muslim Scholars Council, referring to the timetable. "We managed to convince them of the importance of a timed pullout."

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said American-led foreign forces should be able to leave Iraq by the end of next year, noting that the one-year extension of the mandate for multinational force in Iraq by the United Nations Security Council earlier this month could be the last.

"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," he told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab broadcast news channel and Web service.

Today's statement offered Shiite politicians concessions, too, by condemning the wave of terrorism that has been aimed at Shiites, condemning trumped-up Islamic theological arguments for attacks on them, and ultimately legitimating the political process that has made Shiite politicians the most dominant political force now in Iraq.

"Some of the sides that were especially sensitive have opened up with the support of the Arab League," Sheikh Humam Hamoudi said. "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 Iraq's 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 today that the results of the meeting were a success but warned that expectations should still remain modest.

"This is a success for the most part," Mr. Moussa 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, many of whom intend to seek election on Dec. 15, thrashed out their differences in the most open debate about the country's future yet. Starting on Saturday, the delegates wasted no time expressing their complaints and differences, after more than two years of sectarian violence and terrorism.

"Even if there is no agreement, we will have accomplished a conversation," Iraq's interim president, Jalal Talabani, said on Sunday. Mr. Talabani and other members of the government refrained from taking a direct part in closed-door sessions for the three-day conference.

The meeting ultimately centered on Iraq's insurgency and its causes, seeking to goad Sunnis to drop their arms and join the political system, while forcing Shiite politicians to acknowledge Sunni grievances. On Saturday, President Talabani said he was willing to meet Iraqi insurgents if they dropped their arms.

"No one can directly influence the resistance in Iraq," said Saad Al Janabi, head of a political party. "But they don't intend to maintain their resistance forever. As soon as the occupation leaves, you will see all this sectarianism and division end."

From the start, the meeting was beset by controversy as many, especially Shiite members, objected to plans to invite former Baath Party officials to take part. Even the release of the statement was delayed by last-minute objections to several points by Sunni leaders. But with a bit of diplomacy that included shuttling from the general assembly to Mr. Moussa's offices for private deliberations, a compromise was reached this evening.

The United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United States, and European officials have all applauded the reconciliation drive. Still, most attendees said there was no guarantee that the conference would have any direct impact on the violence in Iraq soon.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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