- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

CAIRO — Shi’ite and Kurdish delegates stormed out of an Iraqi reconciliation conference yesterday, infuriated by a speaker who branded them as U.S. sellouts, but they were persuaded to return after an apology.

The walkout highlighted the sectarian and political divisions at the all-party gathering, which the Arab League called to prepare for a larger meeting to be held later in Iraq.

Hours after the conference began, an Iraqi Christian delegate, Ibrahim Menas al-Youssefi, took the podium and accused fellow delegates of being American stooges. He said the entire Iraqi political process was illegitimate and orchestrated by Washington.

Shi’ite and Kurdish delegates left the closed session in disgust.

“They are insulting the Iraqi people and they are insulting the constitution on which several million Iraqis have voted,” Shi’ite legislator Jawad al-Maliki told reporters outside the chamber.

Arab foreign ministers, particularly Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, promptly engaged the Shi’ite and Kurdish delegates and urged them to return to the chamber.

Within the hour, Sunni delegate Mohammed Shehab al-Dulaimi told reporters the conference had resumed after the delegate apologized and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa ruled that Mr. al-Youssefi’s comments would be struck from the record.

There are long-standing tensions between the groups represented at the conference, which many leaders of Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni communities declined to attend.

Shi’ites had been skeptical of the conference from the start. They opposed participation by Sunni Arab officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime and from pro-insurgency groups.

The Arab League agreed to exclude those involved in atrocities against Iraqis but declined to reveal the invitation list. Among those known to be invited were representatives of four key Sunni Arab political parties.

In the session yesterday, Sunni delegates demanded that the current government, which is Shi’ite-dominated, agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces and to major amendments to the constitution ratified in an Oct. 15 referendum.

The Sunnis pushed for “recognition” of those fighting foreign forces as a resistance movement and to restore former army officers who served under Saddam.

In opening speeches earlier yesterday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he rejected the inclusion of insurgents or Saddam loyalists in the country’s political process. The insurgency was delaying the day when the U.S.-led forces would withdraw from Iraq and leave it as a country of “complete sovereignty and independence,” he said.

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