The head of the Arab League warned against expecting breakthroughs at a conference Saturday aimed at reconciling Iraq's sharply divided ethnic and religious groups.
As leaders of the factions began arriving in Cairo on Friday, the effort met an early setback when Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political party, said he will not attend the meeting sending a low-level deleagtion instead.
Shiites have been skeptical of the conference from the start and have strongly opposed participation by Sunni Arab officials from the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein or from pro-insurgency groups.
The &to=http://english.pravda.ru/world/2002/12/12/40706.html' target=_blank>Arab League, which is sponsoring the gathering, agreed to exclude those involved in atrocities against Iraqis but has declined to reveal the entire list of participants. Among those known to be invited are representatives of four key Sunni Arab political parties.
The league's Secretary-General Amr Moussa played down expctations of the U.S.-backed discussions. "We should not begin with high or exaggerated expectations," Moussa said.
Moussa has invited about 100 Iraqi leaders to the gathering, which aims to prepare for a full reconciliation conference to be held in Iraq _ probably in January. The weekend session is expected to tackle the issue of who will participate in the full conference.
Al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for &to=http://english.pravda.ru/accidents/2003/04/17/46006.html' target=_blank>Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the conference should not be turned into a platform for reconciliation with former Baathists or Sunnit extremists whom he called "enemy No. 1 of the Iraqi people."
Al-Hakim sent several aides, including Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of SCIRI's armed Badr Brigade militia, which is widely dispised by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
Moussa traveled to Iraq last month _ his first visit since Saddam was ousted in 2003 _ and met sharp criticism from Shiite leaders, who said the Arab League was acting too late to help in the Iraqi conflict and failed to condemn attacks by Sunni-led insurgents.
Most nations in the 22-member league opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam. The league has since stayed away from Iraq's political process, in part because some members felt intervening would condone the invasion.
Many in Iraq's Shiite majority see the league as biased toward the Sunni minority, which forms the backbone of the insurgency
"I hope the doubts will be dispersed through goodwill," Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in Cairo.