Iraqi foes give mediation a chance

UMass scholar at center of talks on Kirkuk

THE BROKER Padraig O’Malley convened the conference to help Iraq’s Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens resolve their disputes on their own. THE BROKER
Padraig O’Malley convened the conference to help Iraq’s Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens resolve their disputes on their own.
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / November 19, 2009

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With a push from a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor, local and national Iraqi legislators are meeting today in Baghdad to defuse explosive disputes in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where ethnic and political conflicts threaten to derail Iraq’s halting progress toward a working democracy.

At a critical moment in Iraq, with the scheduled January election in doubt, UMass professor Padraig O’Malley is convening the conference with the goal of setting up mechanisms for the Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens of oil-rich Kirkuk to resolve their many disputes on their own.

The gathering at the Al Rashid Hotel follows three rounds of mediation set in motion by O’Malley with national Iraqi leaders from all the major parties. The first session, in Helsinki in 2007, was devoted to developing problem-solving mechanisms. Further sessions - in Helsinki in April 2008 and in Baghdad in July 2008 - led to an agreement on 16 principles for resolving disputes and managing conflicts throughout Iraq.

The three-day conference beginning today includes delegations from three key bodies: the national Iraqi Parliament, the Kirkuk Provincial Council, and the Kurdish Parliament. The speaker of the Iraqi Legislature, Ayad al Samarrai, who was part of the Helsinki process, is scheduled to open today’s session.

O’Malley, who has spent 35 years mediating in divided societies, including Northern Ireland and South Africa, brought with him prominent leaders from those successful peace negotiations to help facilitate the Kirkuk talks. O’Malley’s premise is that those who have themselves traded guns for ballots are best suited to help others do the same.

Roelf Meyer, the chief negotiator for South Africa’s white-minority government in the 1990s in the transition to majority rule, joins prominent Northern Ireland political leaders Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Maskey, and John Alderdice as facilitators.

“The hope is that after interacting together and identifying all the challenges facing Kirkuk, the meeting recognizes that we have two alternatives,’’ O’Malley said by telephone from Baghdad last night. “We can let things drift into oblivion and violence, or we can work together.’’

The status of Kirkuk has been a point of angry contention since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who had tried to “Arabize’’ the city, expelling hundreds of thousands of Kurds. The Turkmen minority also has complained of being squeezed out, as Kurds have poured back in and reasserted their influence. The issue of sharing income from oil in the Kirkuk region remains another divisive point.

The Kirkuk conference takes place at a critical moment for Iraq. The Sunni Arab vice president yesterday vetoed part of the election law regarding the votes of Iraqis outside the country, throwing into doubt the national election in January. In addition, a dispute over the relative weight of votes in the Kurdish-dominated north resurfaced yesterday as a threat to the January ballot.

O’Malley, who has been in Iraq for most of the past six weeks preparing for the meeting, said he hoped the meeting would result in an agreement to meet regularly under the leadership of Samarrai and deputy chairmen from the Kirkuk and Kurdish legislative bodies. The monthly meetings would tackle the most important disputes head-on.

“The only restraining force in Kirkuk right now is the presence of the Americans,’’ O’Malley said. “But they are pulling out, and they are saying, ‘You’d better get your act together.’ ’’

The Helsinki process grew out of work by UMass-Boston’s McCormack Institute of Graduate Studies, O’Malley’s academic home, and the Institute of Global Leadership at Tufts University.

As he did for the Helsinki meetings, Boston businessman Robert Bendetson, a Tufts trustee, provided much of the $30,000 in travel and related costs for the Kirkuk conference.

O’Malley said that establishing a Kirkuk negotiating mechanism would be even more important if the national political process become stalemated and elections are delayed.

“What we want to do in the next three days is to come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to work together in a body,’’ O’Malley said. “If that happens, this will have been a remarkable conference.’’

James F. Smith can be reached at