BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's prime minister reached out to Sunni Arabs at a national reconciliation conference on Saturday, urging Saddam Hussein-era officers to join the new army and a review of the ban against members of the former dictator's ruling party.
But key players on both ends of the Sunni-Shiite divide skipped the meeting, raising doubt that the conference will succeed in healing the country's wounds.
"We firmly believe that national reconciliation is the only guaranteed path toward security, stability and prosperity. The alternative, God forbid, is death and destruction and the loss of Iraq," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in his opening remarks.
The long-awaited gathering was touted by the Iraqi government and the White House as a chance to rally ethnic, religious and political groups around a common strategy for ending the country's violence.
At least 23 people were killed Saturday in Iraq, including a Sunni cleric and a Sunni politician who were shot to death in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. Police also found the bodies of 53 men who had been bound and blindfolded before they were shot to death in Baghdad — apparently the latest victims of sectarian death squads.
Iraq's politicians, however, have been unable to come together and the Shiite prime minister faces growing dissent by his coalition partners, including Shiite allies like radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr's bloc said it was boycotting the two-day meeting, as did two major Sunni groups and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
"There is no point in holding these conferences ... because the situation is getting worse," said al-Sadr's spokesman, Firas al-Mitairi.
Al-Sadr's absence came amid recent reports that efforts by some rival lawmakers are under way to sideline the anti-U.S. cleric, whose Mahdi Army militia has been blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence.
Hours before the conference, Iraqi and U.S. forces detained six suspects in a raid and an airstrike in the al-Sadr stronghold of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad. The raid left one fighter dead and another wounded, the U.S. military said.
The prime minister addressed the problem of militias in his speech, reiterating that they should be disbanded, but he did not offer any new ideas about how to do so.
"There must be a solution to this problem and the militias must be disbanded and integrated into various state institutions," he said.
Al-Maliki also said Iraq has been able to overcome many of the outstanding problems with its neighbors, including U.S. rivals Syria and Iran.
He added that Iraq would send delegations to the neighboring countries in coming days and could call for a regional conference.
"We refuse to allow Iraq to become a battlefield for regional and international conflicts," he added.
The White House said al-Maliki's remarks showed a commitment to bringing militias and insurgents under control and halting the violence.
"He is clearly in favor of forming an Iraq based on national unity and not individual sects. He repeated his desire for Iraq's neighbors to play a constructive role in rebuilding the country," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for President Bush's National Security Council. "The United States urges the parties to the national reconciliation conference to chart a course that brings stability and security to a unified and democratic Iraq."
Al-Maliki also reached out to the army officers and soldiers who lost their jobs after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam nearly four years ago.
"The new Iraqi army has opened its doors for members of the former army, officers and soldiers, and the national unity government is prepared to absorb those who have the desire to serve the nation," al-Maliki said.
He said the government needed "their energies, expertise and skills in order to complete the building of our armed forces."
He imposed few conditions on the return of former military personnel, only cautioning that those allowed to serve in the new army should be loyal to the country and conduct themselves professionally.
He also said the size of the army might limit the number accepted but those unable to join would be given pensions.
Two aides to al-Maliki, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to disclose information to the media, said Saddam-era officers could apply to be reinstated regardless of their rank. But they said admission would depend on their professional and physical suitability for service as well as the extent of their links to the Baath Party.
The government had previously invited former officers up to the rank of major to join the new army. The outreach and pension offer were apparent concessions to a long-standing demand by Sunni Arab politicians who argue that the neglect of former army soldiers was spreading discontent and pushing them into the arms of the insurgency.
L. Paul Bremer, Iraq's former U.S. governor, dissolved Iraq's 400,000-strong army soon after American forces overthrew Saddam's regime in April 2003. The decision is widely seen as a mistake because it drove many into opposition.
Al-Maliki also called on parliament to review the "de-Baathification" clauses in the constitution adopted last year to ensure what he called the rights of the families of those sacked from government jobs for their membership in the party.