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Fixing Iraq, without us

The key to the crisis may lie in Northern Ireland and South Africa

Padraig O'Malley thinks Iraqi can learn from other divided societies.
Padraig O'Malley thinks Iraqi can learn from other divided societies. (Globe Photo / Eric Jacobs )

WHEN POLITICIANS AND policy makers talk about fixing Iraq, the problem is usually portrayed as an intractable religious conflict among people incapable of putting their sectarian or tribal allegiances aside. And Americans widely assume that we will have to fix it - or simply skulk away and let the Iraqis fight on in perpetuity.

But a new approach to resolving conflicts developed by a small group of negotiators from South Africa and Northern Ireland suggests there is another way to think about Iraq's civil conflict, one in which the United States doesn't play a central role, and in which Iraqis simplify and take control of their own resolution process.

This approach is to see Iraq as a divided society, much like Northern Ireland - a country whose people are split by fundamental disagreement and mistrust, but not one irretrievably broken or destined for chaos. Fixing a divided society requires a set of tools not associated with traditional diplomacy: starting small, bringing disparate groups to neutral territory, and not expecting answers to emerge from governments.

"Governments can't deal with divided societies, because they don't understand them," said Padraig O'Malley, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who has been working on a negotiating strategy for Iraq. "People from divided societies are in the best position to help others from divided societies."

The process can be slow and incremental, and by its nature is devoid of political sound bites. But if it works, it can pay off in a way that traditional diplomacy cannot: creating a lasting peace from within, rather than a truce imposed by larger powers from outside.

Toward this end, O'Malley recently helped fly a group of Iraqi politicians, both Sunni and Shi'ite, to meet with South African and Irish politicians and civic leaders in a remote Finnish resort for four days. The conference, they hope, could be the first step in a new, simplified approach to resolving what is widely seen as the world's most complicated conflict.

The roots of this approach stretch back to South Africa's transition out of apartheid. For years, that country's ruling white minority had simply ignored the people in the black majority, refusing to recognize their democratic mandate and, more importantly, their humanity. As the apartheid regime began to lose its grip on power, the situation had all the ingredients for a bitter civil war.

But when Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress's chief negotiator, and his white National Party counterpart Roelf Meyer started meeting regularly in low-key, unpublicized sessions, they discovered that they connected at a basic, human level. The enormity of the gulf between their two sides narrowed when they started talking about what kind of country they wanted for their children.

The unexpectedly smooth transition away from apartheid had a profound effect on O'Malley. A Dublin-born scholar who had spent much of the 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland, he began spending large chunks of time in South Africa. In both countries, he went beyond just studying the conflicts, becoming involved in the resolution, trying to get the combatants who spoke to him to speak to one another as well.

In 1992, O'Malley helped bring South Africans who had helped end apartheid to Boston to meet with representatives from the various warring factions in Northern Ireland. They met at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, ostensibly to discuss how a bill of rights might help resolve generations of conflict in both countries. But, in O'Malley's mind, it was as much about getting the Africans and the Irish to know one another. In 1996, with O'Malley's help, Ramaphosa and Meyer went to Belfast for a second round of discussions with those in Northern Ireland.

The following year, at a follow-up conference in South Africa, Nelson Mandela, then the president of South Africa, spoke to two separate groups from Northern Ireland - Protestant unionists who wanted it to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic nationalists and republicans who aspired to unity with the Irish Republic. Mandela did not pull punches. He said the Irish Republican Army had to call a cease-fire. He said unionists had to engage with Irish republicans, even before the IRA gave up its weapons.

Officials from Sinn Féin, the IRA's political wing, almost all of them former IRA members, were impressed by Mac Maharaj, the last militant leader in the African National Congress to put his gun down. Maharaj, who was a hero to many IRA leaders, explained how Mandela, his former cellmate on Robben Island, convinced him that armed struggle had become counterproductive, that they had to negotiate with the Afrikaners.

"People who couldn't be seen talking to each other in Belfast did talk to each other in Boston and Johannesburg," O'Malley said. "There were real, human connections."

Last year, against most predictions, the IRA disbanded and gave up its weapons. Last May, against all predictions, the fundamentalist Protestant preacher the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the biggest unionist party, put aside a lifetime of anti-Catholic and anti-republican rhetoric and went into a power-sharing government with Martin McGuinness, the former chief of staff of the IRA.

McGuinness said Mandela telling him "you make peace with your enemies, not your friends" had a profound effect on him.

"It sounds simple, I know," McGuinness said. "But when he said it, it meant something. He was asking us to do something he had done himself."

The experiences in South Africa and Northern Ireland gave O'Malley and the negotiators from those countries a few basic principles they believed were crucial to success, and they see Iraq as another case where it could work.

First, Iraq's civil conflict must be seen not as a dizzying clash of civilizations, but one of a society that has been divided because of a particular set of historical circumstances. Such conflicts are rooted in basic human emotions of fear, mistrust, and prejudice.

The Iraqi politicians O'Malley has spoken with complain that the Sunni-Shia divide is a simplistic paradigm used by outsiders to reduce a complex societal division to something that the West can understand. The Iraqis insist the division is based not on religion, but on influence and power - who controls and distributes resources and jobs. There was a similar paradigm in Northern Ireland: The conflict was often described as being between Catholics and Protestants, when the combatants themselves insisted that it was really over national identity and power, and that religious affiliation was coincidental, not causal.

Second, these negotiators have found that individuals, not governments, hold the key to resolving conflict. High-level diplomats seldom live in the midst of conflict, and are not condemned to live with the consequences of failure. Those who have lived through violent conflict have considerably more credibility with those currently living in it.

"It's like addiction," says O'Malley. "It's only when you put addicts together that they relate to each other the way others can't. They tell each other stories in which they recognize their own behavior."

Self-determination and ownership of the process are also crucial. During the Northern Ireland talks, Mandela insisted that facilitators from his country would only continue brokering talks if the parties there formally asked for their involvement. That established a key principle in the new approach: Nothing would be imposed, and those still engaged in conflict had to make all the big decisions.

Third, it is OK, in fact probably necessary, for the opposing parties to confront each other outside their home turf. O'Malley and the others found that political enemies or rivals could engage one another more openly and honestly if they got away from the fishbowl of domestic politics - and if they didn't give press conferences while negotiating, which can reduce the process to horse trading or, worse, demagoguery. O'Malley said it's crucial that negotiations take their natural course, over months or years, without being subject to partisan posturing.

Since their success in Northern Ireland, individual negotiators from both South Africa and Northern Ireland have traveled to other places of deep-seated civil conflict - to the Basques, the Palestinians, the Bosnians, among others. The results have been mixed. After some promising developments in talks between Basque separatists and the Spanish government, for instance, the negotiations stalled and violence recently resumed.

O'Malley believes their approach could bear fruit in the Middle East, where big, stage-managed, government-sponsored peace talks, such as the Oslo Accords, have gotten plenty of attention but failed to produce lasting settlements.

During the last week of August, O'Malley spirited a group of 16 Iraqis to a Finnish resort a few hours' drive from Helsinki. They were met there by a large group of African and Irish negotiators - the first time the group had gathered collectively and tried to replicate the success they had in ending the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The conference was privately organized, and funded by Robert Bendetson, chief of the Cabot House furniture chain and a former student of O'Malley's at Tufts University.

The Iraqi delegation was made up of Sunni and Shi'ite politicians, including those loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and representatives close to various militia and insurgent groups. It also included the minister for national reconciliation, Akram al-Hakim.

The Africans and the Irish began by explaining not how they succeeded, but where they had initially failed. It was a deliberate strategy to not appear as preachy know-it-alls. When the Northern Irish politicians explained the difficulty of trying to engage with enemies at the same time they were trying to reassure their individual constituencies they were not selling out, the Iraqis nodded in recognition.

One session was led jointly by McGuinness, the former IRA chief of staff and now deputy first minister of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, and Jeffrey Donaldson, a leading member of the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most Protestants in Northern Ireland. Ten years ago, Donaldson refused to be in the same room as McGuinness during a peace conference in South Africa, viewing him as a murderer.

Quintin Oliver, a political strategist from Northern Ireland, said the Iraqis reacted during the conference much as the Northern Irish did when they first met with South African facilitators in Boston and at follow-up conferences: The first couple of days were devoted mainly to Iraqis asking questions of the Irish and the Africans, but then the Iraqis began talking to one another.

One of the Iraqis came up to O'Malley and said, "We have never talked this frankly to each other about our problems."

The Iraqis sequestered themselves on the final day. After five hours together, they came up with a 12-point communique pledging themselves to democratic principles and reconciliation. Much of it was based on the Mitchell Principles, the blueprint used in the Northern Ireland talks a decade ago by George Mitchell, the former US senator from Maine.

As news of the Finland conference spread, skeptics were quick to point out that few of those in attendance had real power in Iraq, either in mainstream politics or in the various armed groups. O'Malley responds that this approach to conflict resolution is a progression, that there is an initial feeling-out process, and that follow-up sessions begin to draw a broader, more influential cast of characters.

"The way these things start is always the same," he said. "You begin with the step of bringing them together. Then you get them used to being together, that there are valuable lessons to be learned from these other experiences, especially the formulation of power-sharing, and the reform of the security services. If they accept these principles as a basis of how negotiations can happen, then we'll see another round.

"But before they negotiate, they've got to know who's in, who's out, what are the ground rules, and how does the collective treat people who remain outside the process," he said. "Negotiating the rules is the prelude to the real thing."

Whether there will be another conference similar to the one in Finland is up to the Iraqis. O'Malley plans to return to Iraq next month to assess the appetite for another round.

If there is, he predicts, there will be more senior and influential representatives of both mainstream Sunni and Shi'ite groups and the various insurgencies.

O'Malley also hopes to extend his peer-mentoring idea to other conflicted areas. This week representatives from truth and reconciliation commissions in Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and South Africa will gather at UMass-Boston to share their experiences with those from Northern Ireland and Serbia, where such commissions are in the planning stages.

"You've got to walk," O'Malley said, "before you run."

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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