ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Negotiations over the future of a country that is currently wracked by warfare took place in Cairo this week. Representatives of many ethnic and religious groups from Iraq were there. They released a letter agreeing on talking points for a larger reconciliation conference set to take place in February. Among the agreed points: that some form of resistance to occupation is, quote, "legitimate." But Hassan Fattah of The New York Times says the definition of `resistance' was kept vague.
Mr. HASSAN FATTAH (The New York Times): Essentially, the wording of the final statement says that there is a national right to resistance. It doesn't say whose national right and it doesn't say anything specifically about the US troops or anything like that.
SIEGEL: Does that amount to an acknowledgement that Sunni Arabs--who in Iraq today are, say, attacking US forces--are conducting acts of resistance, which are, therefore, justified?
Mr. FATTAH: Sunni Arabs at the conference insisted that they were not part of the resistance itself. But they did hint that they had close connections to the resistance, and ultimately, they saw themselves as protectors of the resistance. They were struggling to differentiate themselves from terrorism, however. That was a central goal of theirs, to basically say there is a difference between terrorism and the resistance against armed forces.
SIEGEL: And what about this issue of a timetable, saying that the Iraqis want to have some timetable from the US about withdrawal? Do they mean dates when our forces will be out by?
Mr. FATTAH: This has been a main sticking point between the Sunni and Shia sides. The Sunnis have insisted that they want a timetable for withdrawal. It doesn't have to be this year, it doesn't have to immediate, as long as they can say that at such and such date, such and such will happen. This is what they have been fighting for.
On the other hand, the Shia have been insisting that you base it on milestones--milestones, basically, when a certain level of Iraqi troops are available and are ready, perhaps you can start pulling out a certain number of US troops, along those lines.
SIEGEL: Did the Shia offer any number of troops by which it would constitute a milestone worthy of US withdrawal?
Mr. FATTAH: They've never gotten to that stage. It's been ultimately an argument of time vs. milestones.
SIEGEL: Did you come away from this conference, this reconciliation conference, feeling that the outlook for 2006 in Iraq is a little bit brighter than you might have thought it was before, or are they the same old arguments with the same old people on the same old sides?
Mr. FATTAH: I think a lot of people left a bit more optimistic, but then again, a lot more people reminded me to remember the optimism after the elections in January of this year and other milestones that happened in this whole process. Ultimately, what will determine whether this is a success or not is what happens on the ground, and it's not necessarily assured that either side will be able to stop the insurgency and stop the violence.
SIEGEL: Was it even implied by the Sunni delegates to this conference that perhaps if they came away with some good statement from the conference that they would have influence with the armed insurgents to have them call off their attacks?
Mr. FATTAH: Well, that's the hope. Ultimately, the hope is senior Sunni leaders would be able to convince at least the nationalist insurgents to lay down their arms, get involved in the political process and calm things down and at least be able to differentiate between terrorists, who would be then considered criminals, and the insurgents, who were nationalists essentially.
SIEGEL: Within that distinction, somebody who might fire on US forces would not be considered a terrorist; they would be considered resistance.
Mr. FATTAH: As I put the question to one of the leaders the other day, and I asked him that specific question, and he said, `You think about it,' and he walked away. I think people are very nervous about answering that question, in fact.
SIEGEL: Hassan Fattah, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FATTAH: Thanks very much.
SIEGEL: Hassan Fattah, reporter for The New York Times, talking to us from Cairo, where he covered the preparatory meetings for the Iraqi Reconciliation Conference.
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