- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s main Sunni bloc boycotted a conference yesterday aimed at reconciling the nation’s sectarian groups, a sign of the deep schisms still facing this country.

Members of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front said they would not participate in the conference until Shi’ite lawmakers address their political demands. They say Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, has failed to release detainees not charged with specific crimes, has not disbanded Shi’ite militias and has not sufficiently included Sunni lawmakers in decision making on security issues.

“How we can attend a reconciliation meeting?” said Saleem Abdullah, a spokesman for the Sunni front. “There are many points that are still not fulfilled.”

The U.S. is pressing the Iraqis to achieve national reconciliation, warning that progress toward that goal is necessary to guarantee long-term American support.

The conference comes after visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John McCain to tout security gains and stress Washington’s commitment to fighting insurgents in Iraq.

Mr. Cheney spent Monday night at the U.S. military base in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, before flying to Irbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq yesterday. There, he was to meet with Massoud Barzani, head of the regional administration in the semiautonomous area. Mr. McCain traveled to Jordan yesterday.

Mr. al-Maliki opened the reconciliation meeting a day after a suicide bomber struck Shi’ite worshippers in the holy city of Karbala, killing at least 50 persons, according to an official and witness. The blast was the deadliest in a series of attacks that left at least 79 Iraqis dead Monday.

In his opening statement, Mr. al-Maliki said reconciliation was not intended to harm the interests of any group but was “a boat that saves us and takes us to safety.”

Mr. al-Maliki noted many in the government continued to doubt the success of reconciliation. But he urged lawmakers to view differences in opinion as political progress, not disagreement that threatened to unravel national unity.

A heated debate over differences, he said, also could open the door to foreign influence and compromise Iraq’s constitutional principles.

He acknowledged in a later briefing for reporters that much work still must be done to bridge Iraq’s sectarian divides.

The national conference coincides with the release of a United Nations report that record numbers of Iraqis sought asylum in the European Union last year, despite a sharp reduction in violence that followed the surge of U.S. forces.

Asylum requests from Iraqis shot up to 38,286 in 2007, from 19,375 in 2006, according to the report, making Iraqis the single-largest group seeking refuge in the EU.

Mr. al-Maliki said yesterday that Iraqi officials were working to bring Iraqi refugees home.

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