Transfixed by the scalding rhetoric that has steamed the heavens above Washington over the past year or more, most of us have been too stupefied to wonder what the Arab world thinks about Iraq. Above all, there has been deafening silence except for the constant mutterings from the propaganda-generating Al Jazeera and others of its ilk. We’ve seen and heard precious little comment from Arab government leaders that clearly demonstrates either their support or displeasure toward Iraq-after-Saddam Hussein. I’ve wondered why that’s the case.

Perhaps they’ve been waiting to see the results of our actions in Iraq. Would America bug out early and leave a mess for others to clean up? Would the insurrectionists finally take control of the struggling nation and drive America into the sea of disgrace? Or, would we misjudge the signals and assume democracy was instilled in the land only to open the door to a violent civil war? I certainly don’t know if any of these scenarios even comes close to being valid, but it’s a fascinating question to ask in light of what occurred in late November.

Little known to most Americans and only sparsely covered by the press, the Arab League called a preliminary conference on the reconciliation of Iraq last month. Convened in Cairo by the league’s Secretary-General, Dr. Amre Moussa, it was only a planning session, but a vital step in the engagement of other Arab countries in efforts to provide support for the creation of a new Iraq.

About 80 Iraqi political, tribal and religious figures attended the preparatory conference, among them: President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies. Also attending were representatives from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Iraq Arab-country neighbors along with observers from the United States, the Russian Federation, France and the European Union. The meeting was really a first step toward a much wider conference to be convened later in Iraq when more Iraqi leaders are expected to take part because it will be on their home turf.

Even though this was a planning meeting and not a directive conference, it did reach some preliminary conclusions. Among them were the following:

1. Iraq should maintain its territorial integrity within a federal system.

2. The participants recognized that the parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 15 should be held as scheduled, and that everyone should participate in them (no more boycotts by the Sunnis).

3. The participants further recognized the importance of the integration of the Sunni community into the political process.

4. The Arab League, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, could play a constructive role in reconciling the differences between the Iraqi sectarian groups.

Although this may seem to some observers like a tiny step, and many critics inside Iraq voiced disappointment with the results of this first meeting, Secretary General Moussa was greeted warmly when he visited the country. This is not to say the criticisms coming from many Iraqi journalists and politicians were not on point. They frequently cited their anger at the failure of conferees to condemn daily car bombings by insurrectionists and to ignore completely the discovery of mass graves and the crimes of the previous regime.

Nonetheless, the fact that such a meeting took place, with more planned for after the first of the year, may very well be a good sign for the Middle East. It is an indication that there is finally some attempt to openly discuss opportunities for constructive changes in the area, and more significantly, support for Iraq’s fragile steps toward democracy.

When the tsunami hit Indonesia and other locations in the East Indies almost a year ago I was surprised that the Arab countries, by and large, did not respond to the disaster with offers of relief. After all, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Estimates of loss of life ranged as high as 270,000. The third pillar of Islam is Zagat, or giving to charity, but only to Muslims. Where the Western World found no barriers because of religious belief and gave vast amounts of money and active support to the victims of the tsunami, most of whom were Muslims, the Arab World seemed little concerned.

That’s why I choose to see something hopeful about the Arab League conference and the follow-up meeting tentatively scheduled for next March. If this is an indication that the Arab countries are accepting a responsibility for lifting one of their own out of despair, for offering support and positive ideas for improving the relationships between disparate religious groups and building a lasting democratic nation where tyranny had reigned, it’s a good thing.

The Middle East Media Research Institute observes that, “The mood of moderate optimism which prevailed during and after the preparatory conference, and various agreements reached, are but a first step in what is bound to be a long and arduous process to achieve stability and nation-building.”

That’s certainly true and we should all acknowledge it as fact. At the same time, we can’t afford to let things in Iraq run out of control. To simply let provocateurs have their way and end up exacerbating the already existing conflicts between Shi’a and Sunni would be a shame. All nations of good conscience should assume some responsibility for safeguarding Iraq’s future.

At this point, the Dec. 15 parliamentary election results are still being tallied so we’re not sure where things may be headed. But it’s important that we leverage every positive aspect of the results. There will be many tea leaves to read, and for that we must look deep to the bottom of the cup.

(Send your comments to rtunison@cox.net.)

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