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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 November 2005, 01:24 GMT
Tensions mark Iraqi peace talks
Police examine wreckage of car bomb in central Baghdad on Saturday
The conference got under way as new bombs went off in Iraq
High tension has marked the first day of a meeting of Iraq's political and religious leaders to discuss plans for a future reconciliation conference.

Kurdish and Shia leaders - who hold the balance of power in Iraq - were accused of intolerance for wanting no Baathists from the ousted regime to participate.

And they briefly walked out when one delegate accused Iraqi politicians and forces of being stooges of the US.

The three-day session in Cairo has been organised by the Arab League.

The aim is to lay the groundwork for a summit to bring about peace and reconciliation - probably to take place early next year, after elections on 16 December.

But the first day of the talks highlights the difficulties ahead, says the BBC's Heba Saleh in Cairo.

'Spirit of exclusion'

The leader of Iraq's largest Shia political party, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, refused to attend the meeting, which was attended by around 100 Iraqi leaders and regional officials.

Iraq's Kurdish president and Shia prime minister made it clear they wanted no Saddam Hussein loyalists or those involved in the insurgency to take part in the process.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari at the meeting in Cairo
Talabani and Jaafari want to exclude insurgents and Baathists

"We have set a red line; there is no room for Baathists in Iraq," Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said, echoing the views of many Shias.

Hareth al-Dari, head of the Sunni Committee of Muslim Scholars, retorted: "Jaafari's speech was characterised by a spirit of exclusion and he painted a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq."

Many Sunni politicians said the US occupation was at the root of the problem and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops was necessary.

The proceedings were abruptly halted for around 15 minutes when Shias and Kurds walked out after objecting to comments from one Christian leader.

"The Iraqi constitution is a fabrication coming from the occupation forces," Minas Ibrahim al-Yusufi of the Iraqi Christian Democratic Party was quoted by delegates as saying.

No-one is under any illusion that progress over the next two days of talks will be easy, says our correspondent.

Lebanese example

This is the first time the Arab League has tried to broker peace in Iraq.

The organisation has been criticised by Washington and Baghdad for adopting, at best, a neutral stance, on Iraq.

The League has not played a decisive role in regional politics for a number of years and has been criticised in the Middle East and elsewhere for being an ineffectual "talking shop", says the BBC's Ian Pannell.

But it is widely credited with helping to broker the agreement that eventually led to peace in Lebanon - a challenge which then seemed as intractable as the Iraqi situation now.

If the Arab League has any real muscles, now would be the time to flex them, our correspondent adds.

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