WASHINGTON - Members of a team that worked to produce a framework for political reconciliation in Iraq told a congressional subcommittee yesterday that the United States must involve the international community in further peace negotiations and allow Iraqis to take the central role in the process.
University of Massachusetts at Boston professor Padraig O'Malley, along with political leaders from South Africa and Northern Ireland who crafted agreements between warring factions during conflicts in their own countries, briefed the committee about a series of privately funded meetings they held to bring leaders of Iraqi political parties together.
The meetings culminated in the "Helsinki Agreement," signed by 37 Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July. The agreement outlines a broad set of principles to govern future negotiations between the factions.
"The principles and the mechanisms [in the agreement] are aimed at creating rules and at creating a platform so that the Iraqis can put their concrete grievances on the table and resolve it within the terms of those rules," said Mac Maharaj, who was part of the African National Congress negotiation team that helped South Africa transition from apartheid to a democratic government.
The Iraqi agreement - signed by key members of the majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni parties, along with politicians from Kurdish, Communist, and other parties - calls for disarming groups during negotiations and for reintegrating former members of Saddam Hussein's army into new institutions. It also professes a "commitment to limiting arms possession to the government."
Still, the political leaders cautioned that the agreement shouldn't be viewed as a solution, but as a platform to continue talks between the parties. Structures must be put in place to give "biting teeth" to the points outlined in the agreement, O'Malley said after the briefing.
Outsiders involved in future negotiations must talk to Iraqis to see what resources they will need to create an oversight system to carry out the commitments in the agreement, he said, "particularly as they apply to the disarmament of militias."
O'Malley, a veteran peacemaker who worked on reconciliation efforts in South Africa and Northern Ireland, said he believes it is important for the Iraqis to hear about the experiences of those whose countries were once divided by warring factions.
"Divided societies share certain behavioral characteristics," O'Malley said, explaining why he brought leaders from South Africa and Northern Ireland to share their experiences with Iraqis. "They identify with each other. They can bond in a way that they can't bond with people from more normal societies, and that should be recognized and more efforts made to broaden the table at which people from divided societies can sit together and help other people from divided societies."
O'Malley also advocated for limited government involvement in future talks.
Tufts University trustee Robert Bendetson, head of the furniture retailer Cabot House, funded the two meetings O'Malley held with Iraqi leaders in Finland last fall and this spring, as well as the Baghdad gathering.
"Our pledge to the Iraqis was that we were not involved with any government whatsoever and would not take money from any government," he said.
Representative William Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat who chaired the briefing, said he plans to visit Iraq, perhaps by the end of the year. He said he intends to speak with the Iraqis in the reconciliation meetings about what tools they need to continue negotiations - and what role they want the United States to play in future talks.
"I think the message is clear," Delahunt said after the briefing. "This is a decision to be made by the Iraqis, and, in fact, it's the responsibility of the Iraqis, and we have to recognize that the sovereignty of Iraq has to be respected."