Day: January 7, 2011

Heading for Baghdad: the political

Why am I going to Baghdad next week?  I participate in a “national dialogue” activity focused mainly on Iraqi members of parliament.  This has been meeting, initially outside Iraq and now inside, for four or five years, though my own participation dates from about three years ago.

The change in political atmosphere during those years has been dramatic.  Then, many people in the room rejected the Iraqi constitution approved in a referendum in October 2005.  “Resistance” was not only respectable but even glorious.  Today, everyone in the room accepts the constitution, even if some want it amended.  Resistance has left the lexicon.  Everyone is for reconciliation, except with those who have committed serious crimes against Iraqis (and everyone believes their antagonists may have done so). The tone is often strident, but in the end the proposals, when they can be made to emerge, are pragmatic.

The critical preparation requirement for this kind of dialogue is making sure that people from all parts of the political spectrum are in the room and feel comfortable with the process, even if they don’t like some of the participants.  It does no good to conduct a dialogue among the like-minded, though that is sometimes necessary in preparation for a broader effort.  You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.  Fortunately, my treasured colleague, Arabic-speaking Antonella Caruso of the Italian NGO Ipalmo, does most of the legwork.  And she does it really well, recruiting the participants, getting agreement on the dates, lining up the meeting facilities and interpreters, defining the agenda.

There is no need for large numbers–if there are twenty people in the room that is more than enough.  But they should be representative of at least what the Italians call the “constitutional arc,” the spectrum of political parties that accepts the rules of the political game.  This definitely means getting not only Iraqqiya (Ayad Allawi’s mostly Sunni political coalition) and State of Law (Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s party) into the room, but also the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), the Sahwa (Awakening) and other political forces into the room.

Of course you never know who will participate until the actual event.  People will tell you the night before that they are definitely coming, then not show.  Sometimes there are good reasons:  if a family member is killed in a suicide bombing, they really do have to go the funeral.  Sometimes the reasons are political–it is difficult for foreigners to figure out which two people won’t be seen in the same room together, and in any event we may not want to accommodate that kind of personal feuding.  And sometimes it is just luck of the draw–if there is an important political conclave or vote that happens to coincide with our dialogue meeting, we are going to lose some participants.

We’ve been fortunate for the most part in getting broad participation and serious commitment to the actual discussions, which focus on what national reconciliation should mean in the current Iraqi environment.  Obviously this means discussion of what to do, or not do, about former Ba’athists and how to deal with insurgents, but it also means discussion of the need for a professional civil service, ways to limit ethnic and sectarian quotas while ensuring equal and fair treatment, teaching of history in the schools, restrictions on foreign financing of political parties, documentation of past crimes, laws on incitement–in other words, these are very far-reaching discussions that challenge the Iraqis to define what kind of country they really want to live in.

Our main task this time around will be to try to get the participants–who will shift somewhat from the last meeting in the fall, because seven of the previous participants have become ministers–to prioritize and begin to operationalize their deliberations.  This will not be easy, but our sense is that this is what the participants want and need.  Helping them get there is what we are there for.  This is peacebuilding, one conversation at a time.

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