CAIRO, Egypt – Shiite and Kurdish delegates stormed out of an Iraqi reconciliation conference Saturday after a speaker accused others of being beholden to the United States, briefly halting the effort to patch over Iraq's ethnic and religious fault lines.
The delegates later were persuaded to return after the speaker apologized.
The walkout and resumption highlighted the difficulties of trying to bridge deep divisions among the sectarian delegates at the meeting, which the Arab League called to prepare for a bigger reconciliation conference to be held later in Iraq.
Hours into the meeting, Iraqi Christian delegate Ibrahim Menas al-Youssefi took the podium and accused fellow delegates of being U.S. stooges. He said the entire Iraqi political process was illegitimate and orchestrated by Washington.
The Shiite and Kurdish delegates then left the closed session in disgust.
"They are insulting the Iraqi people and they are insulting the constitution on which several million Iraqis have voted," the senior Iraqi Shiite legislator, Jawad al-Maliki, told reporters outside the chamber. "They want the situation in Iraq to go back to the way it used to be so that the mass graves can return."
Arab foreign ministers, particularly Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, promptly engaged the Shiite and Kurdish delegates and urged them to return.
Within the hour, Sunni delegate Ahmed Shehab al-Dulaimi told reporters the conference had resumed after the delegate apologized and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa ruled that al-Youssefi's comments would be deleted from the record.
Al-Dulaimi said al-Youssefi belonged to the Christian Democratic Party, a Chaldo-Assyrian group. A Shiite delegate, Sami al-Askari, said al-Youssefi was a former member of the intelligence service under Saddam Hussein.
There are long-standing tensions between the groups represented at the conference. Leaders of Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities declined to attend.
The meeting is expected to address the contentious issue of who would participate in the bigger reconciliation conference that is expected to be held in January.
Sunni leaders were expected to press ahead with demands that the Shiite-dominated government agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of the foreign troops and drastic amendments to the constitution ratified Oct. 15. They also want to "recognize" the resistance and "rebuild" Saddam Hussein's army in order to bring back his former officers.
Shiites and Kurds instead insist that Sunni leaders denounce violence and distance themselves from the insurgency.