Faster, Please!

More Copenhagen

The Copenhagen Reconciliation Conference ended today a bit after noon, with the delegates scrambling to agree on a final statement. There were disagreements—how could it be otherwise?—over some of the ‘language,’ and as so often in the Middle East, there are some subtle differences between the Arabic and English versions. The main one is over sovereignty, which of course everyone is for. The disagreement came over whether the International Forces (namely us, of course) are “occupiers,” with most of the religious leaders wanting to say that, and most of the politicians in disagreement. So we’re occupiers in Arabic but not in English.

That should be Iraq’s biggest disagreement, and the “Copenagen Accord” is a fine document, insisting that “leaders…redouble their efforts toward building a civil state, to defeat sectarianism and violence, and to promote the national spirit and rule of law.” It calls for disarming the population and restricting weapons to “the hands of the state.” Such a call would have been very controversial a short time ago, when there was great distrust for government forces (above all the police), and its inclusion here is, I think, testimony to the improvement in the quality and diversity of the armed forces. In short, a tribute to the efforts of the Multinational Force in training a national army rather than sectarian units. And everyone deplored militias (there was private concern that Muqtadah al Sadr’s Mehdi Army may be taking up arms again).

The Accord highlights corruption as a major obstacle to good government, and the language on it is very strong: “The gaining of power for self interest, the monopolizing of power by one group or party, and selection for government by means of nepotism or patronage is unacceptable.” Roger that! And just a few lines later, they come back to this theme: “strong legal actions should be taken to fight the administrative and financial corruption which causes the decay of the state and is one of the biggest obstacles to peace, reconciliation and prosperity.”

They called for integrating the Awakening Movements into the national security forces, and insisted on humane treatment of displaced persons. They went on to ask the government to “ensure human rights and the dignity of all components of Iraqi society, including women, children and the disabled.” Here again, the participants shied away from the use of “minorities” in any context; they repeatedly insisted that they were working for all Iraqis. The special attention to women, children and the disabled reflected their belief that these people urgently required special attention. One of the most moving moments of the closed discussion revolved around the all-too common practices of wife- and child-beating, and the delegates wanted to underline their unhappiness with the treatment of women and children within Iraqi society.

The organizers pronounced themselves well satisfied, as well they should. The final proceedings included the Iraqi Minister for Human Rights, an impressive woman with mastery of all the questions at the conference, and, as I reported earlier, the National Security Adviser. Every major religious sect in Iraq was represented at a high level, and some of the participants were authorized to sign the Accord on behalf of their superiors, including leading Imams and Ayatollahs.

The Conference attracted considerable attention back home, and the final press conference was recorded by Iraqi television. This required the delegates to pronounce the ritual condemnations of the infamous cartoons, recently reprinted by all the major newspapers in Denmark. At the same time, the Accord is effusive in its gratitude to the Danish Government and the Bishop of Copenhagen for their great support. As usual, the journalists were the bad guys of choice. But even there, the tone of the condemnations was sadness rather than rage, and I have rarely been around a group of people more determined to fight religious extremism than these.

I had my doubts about this conference, but I’m delighted that I came. As at all such affairs, the most interesting conversations took place in private, and I am chock full of new knowledge, not least about Middle Eastern sects of which I had never heard before. I now actually know something about the Mandaeans, whose thrice-daily ritual ablutions pay tribute to the sect’s prophet, John the Baptist, and about the Yezidis, a pre-Christian faith that accepts no converts and is seemingly a descendant of Zoroastrianism. Perhaps a free Iran will some day find room for these people. In short, Canon Andrew White, the Conference’s driving force and spiritual inspiration, did something quite remarkable. He put together representatives of all the major elements of Iraqi society and politics, added some of the smaller groups for leavening, and produced a bit of pastry worthy of the place. Danish, if you get my drift…