Tribal leaders and sheikhs from across Iraq met yesterday in Baghdad as the embattled government sought their support for its program to reunite the war-torn country.
Several hundred hereditary chieftains -- the leaders of the tribes to which all Iraqis owe varying degrees of allegiance -- met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and senior officials in a hotel in the capital.
"Iraq cannot be built by violence, but through serious dialogue. Liberating our country from the presence of foreign forces cannot be done without unity and national consensus," Maliki told delegates.
"This cannot be done without the role of tribes which represent the fabric of Iraq ... A tribe should play an essential role in confronting terrorism and shut the doors for sectarian violence," he added.
"You are gathering today under the banner of national reconciliation. No Iraqi should be excluded from this program. At this stage we are in need of all people without any differences between Shiite, Sunni or Christians."
For the government, which has struggled to impose its authority on Iraq, the gathering was seen as an important endorsement of Maliki's reconciliation plan, which foresees broad peace talks later this year.
Ali al-Dabagh, a spokesman for Maliki's government, said the tribal leaders were scheduled to make a joint pronouncement later in the day, to be broadcast on state-owned television.
"We expect that there will be a commitment from the tribal chiefs that they will protect national unity and support the principle of the national reconciliation program of the prime minister," he told reporters.
"They did their homework. The government did not interfere with their job. They did what they feel will support this program," he said, describing how the clan leaders had drawn up their joint declaration.
Al-Dabagh said that tribes would play a role in the peace process -- alongside political parties, religious leaders and civil society -- in an effort to isolate the insurgents fighting against a settlement.
"The insurgents should be isolated. Terrorist groups should be isolated from the tribal leaders, who sincerely want to support national unity," he said. "The tribal groups could play a key role."
Maliki's government is consulting widely in Iraqi society in preparation for a planned peace conference which it hopes will bring an end to the fighting.
Iraq has been plunged into chaos since 2003, when former strongman Saddam Hussein was overthrown in a US-led invasion, creating a power vacuum which has been exploited by religious militias, insurgents and death squads.
A parliament was elected in December but it was not until June this year that Maliki named the last minister in a fragile government of national unity.
Already, his authority has taken a beating from a wave of sectarian violence which has pitted extremists from the Shiite majority -- which was persecuted under Saddam -- against Sunnis.
Health workers say that this dirty war of tit-for-tat bombings and murders accounts for 50 deaths per day in Baghdad alone, although US commanders believe a joint US-Iraqi security plan began this month has stemmed the tide.
Observers warn that if the security and reconciliation programs do not deliver rapidly on their promises, Maliki's government could lose control of a situation some see as already close to an all-out civil war.
A report this month from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington foreign policy think-tank, said: "If the Maliki government does not make such progress by this fall, it will probably lose credibility.
"Trust and hope will have eroded too far, and the US-led security operation will be seen as another occupation," it warned, in a paper written by Anthony Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, gunmen killed four members of a Shiite family, including two children and a woman, who were fleeing their home in the city of Baquba yesterday after receiving threats, police said.
At least 11 other people were wounded when gunmen sprayed bullets on the family as they carried their belongings to a car in the Tahrir neighborhood of Baquba, north of Baghdad.
The wounded included five women and a girl.
One of the survivors said the attack was carried out because the victims were Shiites, suggesting that the gunmen were Sunni extremists.
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