Iraqi Shi'ite, Sunni officials meet in Finland

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi’ite and Sunni Arab officials met in Finland on Saturday to discuss ways to end the sectarian violence crippling the country, a spokeswoman for the group organizing the gathering said.

“The seminar has started well,” Crisis Management Initiative director of operations Meeri-Maria Jaarva told Reuters.

Jaarva said Sunni and Shi’ite representatives were attending, but declined to name them.

An official from the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) said one of its senior officials, Akram al-Hakim, was at the meeting. Hakim is a minister of state for national dialogue in the Iraqi cabinet.

The official, speaking in Baghdad, said Sunni Arab politician Saleh al-Mutlaq and a senior official from the Shi’ite Dawa party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were also there.

Finnish national broadcaster YLE said representatives of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were attending, but two senior aides to the firebrand in Iraq said they were not aware of the event.

Jaarva said discussions began on Friday. Participants were looking at ways to stop the violence in Iraq and how Iraq could use peace models from Northern Ireland and South Africa to settle its own crisis.

Besides sectarian chaos, tension among Shi’ite groups has been rising, especially in Iraq’s predominantly Shi’ite south.

Gunbattles that killed up to 52 people in the Shi’ite city of Kerbala this week appeared to pit followers of Sadr and his Mehdi Army against SIIC, whose armed wing controls police in much of the south.

The conference is organized by CMI and the University of Massachusetts’ John W. McCormack Institute.

CMI is a non-governmental organization headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who has been active in Kosovo and Aceh, Indonesia talks since his presidency ended.

Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad and Terhi Kinnunen in Helsinki