Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mixed Signals - Conference Round-Up

It amazes me how little interest there's been in the US, and in the blogosphere in particular, about the "conference of neighbours" in Iraq. Few if any bloggers are writing about the conference and the MSM coverage has been patchy. The best coverage has come from the UK's superlative Reuters and from regional news services.

For all the screeds written about Iraq, about surges and slow-bleeds, escalations, quagmires and withdrawal...no-one writing about the subject in the USA seems to give much of a hoot about jaw-jaw rather than war-war. I have a nasty feeling that it says something about the nation's preferred methods of conflict resolution, something very deep seated - the High School football team always gets more adulation than the debating team.

I firmly believe people should be interested in what now looks like it will be the first step in actually talking out and solving the region's problems, rather than trying to solve them at gunpoint. The Maliki government has announced a further conference, to involve all Iraq's regional neighbours plus the G8, for April. It will be at ministerial level (which means Rice attending, for instance) and will probably be in Istanbul.

The first conference certainly didn't offer any breakthroughs - it was only a one-day event and contrary to prior speculation Iran's and the US' diplomats didn't sit down in one-on-one discussions. However, it did offer some events worth noting.

Maliki addressed the conference and told the assembled diplomats:

"We call on all to take moral responsibility by adopting a strong and clear stance against terrorism in Iraq and cooperate in stamping out forces of terror," Maliki said, according to the text of his speech to the opening session.

"This is an international epidemic, the price of which is being paid by the Iraqi people and our country is on the frontline of confrontation," he said.

Maliki said Iraq needed the support of its neighbours and the world in stemming the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian violence, which he said could spill over to other countries in the region.

"Confronting terrorism means halting any form of financial support and media or religious backing, as well as logistical support and the flow of arms and men who transform themselves into bombs that kill our children, women and elders, and destroy our mosques and churches."
He didn't mention nations by name, and doubtless the spin in the US will be that he was talking about Iran and Syria. Yet the Saudis and other Sunni states have allowed (or been complicit in) sending weaponry and money to Sunni insurgent groups. The US and UK back the MeK and other groups raiding across the border into Iran - and who contribute to the tensions in Iraq simply by existing. Israel has been accused of training the Kurdish peshmerga and Israel's arms brokers have sold to every side in Iraq's nascent civil war.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad echoed Maliki:
"Iraq's near neighbours and other friends can certainly do more to help in this transition toward stability and prosperity for Iraq," Khalilzad said in a speech to the conference, a copy of which was released to media.

"I urge all neighbors to categorically reject the principle that selective violence against certain categories of Iraqis or against Coalition and Iraqi security forces is acceptable," he said in the speech.

"Iraq's neighbors can only be counted as providing true and honest 'support' to Iraq's stability if they act decisively to halt the flow of fighters, weapons, and other lethal support to militias and other illegal armed groups, and cease sectarian rhetoric and other propaganda that could incite violence."

Khalilzad said the future of Iraq and the Middle East was the defining issue of the moment.

"No country represented at the table would benefit from a disintegrated Iraq; indeed, all would suffer badly," he said. He hoped their presence indicated they were "ready to take concrete, constructive actions" to support Iraq.
Personally I'd love to see the neocon wing of the Bush administration cease "propaganda that could incite violence" and sectarian ill-will - which usually takes the form of stories planted in friendly foreign newspapers such as the UK's Daily Telegraph for repetition worldwide. Ditto with acting "decisively to halt the flow of fighters, weapons, and other lethal support to militias and other illegal armed groups". Will the US now begin to track weaponry it takes into or has sent to Iraq more carefully? Will it stop employing crooked arms dealers to do so? Will it establish proper audit trails to end corruption which often ends up funding the very people US soldiers are fighting? I hope so.

But Khalilzad may have to hone his diplomatic skills outwith prepared speeches a bit, and then show his nation means what it says. When Iranian diplomats raised the question of Iranians detained by US forces - who the Iraq government agrees were diplomats in Iraq at their invitation - he responded curtly "The Coalition does not have anyone in detention who is a diplomat."

Not exactly the best way to show an intention to negotiate - but far worse, a slap in the face to Iraqi sovereignty. It won't have gone unnoticed by the other Middle east diplomats there.

It remains to be seen whether the hardliners - who believe talking at all is a concession - or those who have finally found some form of hard-won realism in the Bush administration will win the day. I didn't expect much from today's conference except a beginning, and that's what we got. The next time the various neighbours sit down togather, it will be Condi Rice doing the talking. I wonder if that will finally engage the interest of American pundits?

Update The AP is reporting that the conference did include one-on-one talks between the US and Iranian diplomats.
The discussions were confined to one session during a conference on Iraq stability, but they appeared to offer room for further interaction between the two nations — which find themselves increasingly drawn toward common issues in Iraq as the nation's most influential allies.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he exchanged views with Iranian delegates "directly and in the presence of others" at the gathering led by Iraq's neighbors and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

He declined to give details of the contacts — calling them only "constructive and businesslike and problem-solving" — but noted that he raised U.S. assertions that Shiite militias receive weapons and assistance across the border from Iran.

The chief Iranian envoy, Abbas Araghchi, said he restated his country's demands for a clear timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, which he insisted have made Iraq a magnet for extremists from across the Muslim world.

"Violence in Iraq is good for no country in the region," said Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, at a post-meeting news conference.

Araghchi said he did not meet privately with Khalilzad, but that all dialogue "was within the framework of the meeting" — which he said had "very good interaction by all the delegations."

Khalilzad, too, called it a "first step."

"The discussions were limited and focused on Iraq and I don't want to speculate after that," he said.
I notice there's been no mention of a Baghdad-briefing style "presentation" by the US at the conference although Satterfield had said they intended to give one. All Khalilzad has said is that he reiterated US claims of Iranian arms in Iraq which isn't the same thing at all. Either they decided not to present such feeble evidence anew, instead deciding just to make the claims without proof to back them, or they gave it and it fell flat.

The AP report also has the most succinct summary of the reasons everyone wants these talks to succeed.
"All the delegates are united by one thing: the fear of a prolonged civil war in Iraq. It would hurt them each in different ways," said Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Fear is the one thing bringing them all together."
That might not actually be true of the neoconservative "Clash of Civilizations" faction in the Bush administration. They might well be calculating that a nasty and spreading Sunni-Shia conflict would indeed harm US interests and would lead to further terrorist attacks on the US, but that such would be a neccessary evil if they can head off what they see as Islam's coming challenge to the West for supremacy by relying on the old "divide and conquer" strategy beloved of Cold War veterans like Dick Cheney.

But nations in the area aren't so gullible as to be willing proxies for the Islamophobes without second thoughts. If they feel that they are being egged on to destroy Islam by America then look for a diplomatic backlash. That may well be the thinking behind Iran's seeming insistence that interim "tactical committees" being set up in advance of the next conference to study "ways to bolster Iraq's security, assist displaced people and improve fuel distribution and sales" should only include Iraq's neighbors and consult with "countries who are players in the region" like the US.

Update 2 Now it seems like the "direct talks" didn't happen in private at all. I'm indebted to regular reader Kat, as ever, for sending snippets that provide an idea of just how direct the talks were.

Bloomberg:
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that Iraq's neighbors must ``halt the flow of fighters, weapons and other lethal support to militias and other armed groups.'' Asked by reporters if he had addressed these issues with the Iranians, he said, ``I did raise these concerns.''

Iran's Abbas Araqchi, a deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference that followed Khalilzad's that U.S. accusations that Iran was supporting Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq are ``false'' and the presence of U.S. troops and those of other nations is fueling the violence.

``We think the presence of foreign forces in Iraq can not help the security,'' the Iranian said. ``The presence of foreign forces justifies violence and violence is used to justify the presence of foreign forces.''
And Reuters (again):
The Iranian delegation arrived in the conference hall and took their seats without making any direct contact with U.S. delegates shortly before the meeting officially opened.

After a public opening session, the delegates retired to a private conference room where Iraqi and U.S. officials sat at either end of a long table, with Araghchi next to the Iraqi.

The two envoys held news conferences in the same room within minutes of each other but their entrances were carefully coordinated using two separate doors to avoid meeting.
"Direct" in Khalilzad-speak appears to mean "we were in the same room at the time we both spoke".

Oh, and the promised Powerpoint redux? It stayed in its briefcase, according to the AP:
During the talks, U.S. envoy David Satterfield pointed to his briefcase which he said contained documents proving Iran was arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.

"Your accusations are merely a cover for your failures in Iraq," Iran's chief envoy Abbas Araghchi shot back, according to an official familiar to the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.