Leading article: Peace and reconciliation could happen even in Iraq

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The Independent Online

For months, even years, the news from Iraq has been only dispiriting. Each time it looked as though things could not become bleaker, another atrocity, another round of killings, ensured that they did. In recent days, though, flickers of hope have appeared, at least one of which might prove longer lasting.

The first was the announcement by the Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, that he was ordering his Mehdi army to suspend military operations for six months. This move may have facilitated the peaceful withdrawal of British troops from central Basra, but it must be doubtful how long such a ceasefire can survive. The next was a US report that last week had seen the lowest number of attacks on civilians and military forces for 15 months. This might be the first evidence that the US military "surge" has exerted a positive effect on security. Realistically, the lull may prove short-lived.

The third piece of hopeful news is at once the most modest and the most surprising. But it is also the one that could, potentially, prove the most durable. It is that representatives of Iraq's Sunni and Shia groups have taken part in secret talks in Finland and agreed principles designed to end sectarian violence. Politicians from South Africa and Northern Ireland also attended, telling of their first-hand experience of peacemaking across seemingly unbridgeable divides.

Undue optimism, of course, would be unwise. The talks – held under the auspices of a conflict-prevention group based in Finland and a US university – inevitably recall not only the first moves in the successful reconciliation processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland, but the Oslo talks in 1993, which led to high-profile accords that slowly, but irretrievably, unravelled.

The involvement of the University of Massachusetts also drew charges of manipulation. One suggestion was that the talks in Finland were little more than a public relations stunt, timed to precede next week's release of the Patraeus report in Washington.

Neither the Oslo parallel, nor the charge of manipulation, however, need mean that the attempt to bring Iraq's warring sides together is necessarily doomed. The invasion of Iraq was, as is increasingly acknowledged even by some of its staunchest erstwhile supporters, a misguided and mismanaged enterprise, undertaken on a false premise. Increasingly, though, it is not the foreign troops who are bearing the brunt of the violence, but Iraqi civilians. A war against foreign occupation has turned into a sectarian conflict, if not – yet – outright civil war.

This means that even an early withdrawal of foreign troops will not, of itself, bring peace. And with no single Iraqi grouping strong enough to prevail alone, the warring factions will one day have to negotiate a settlement. If Iraq is to remain a unitary state – as a majority of Iraqis appear to want – the sooner this can happen, the better.

The mid-Nineties were years of hope in many parts of the world, when parties to long-running conflicts recognised the impossibility of total victory and took the first risky steps towards peace. This took courageous leadership by individual politicians, expert mediation by authoritative brokers, and consistent international support. It also took time, and an acceptance that the results would be imperfect.

One look at Northern Ireland, South Africa or most of former Yugoslavia, however, should prove to even the most embittered Iraqi, that reconciliation is not only desirable, but feasible. The talks in Finland must not be the last time Iraq's hostile factions meet around a table. President Bush's hubris may have broken Iraq, but only Iraqis can put their country back together.