Iraqi trains in a Toronto business course for a mediation mission in his homeland

(Globe and Mail)

Thair Karim Ismail, an Iraqi human-rights activist, is learning the art of negotiation and mediation in a Toronto boardroom. Tear sheets with catch phrases scrawled in magic marker cover the walls of this workshop on alternative dispute resolution:

  • BATNA (Best alternative to a negotiated settlement).
  • ZOPA (Zone of possible agreement).
  • Separate people from Problem.
  • Getting to Yes.

While his Canadian colleagues will be applying these techniques to business and workplace conflicts and negotiations, the stakes for Dr. Ismail are considerably higher.

Dr. Ismail, an exile in Sweden for two decades until his recent return to Iraq, will head back into Baghdad’s Green Zone this week where he is head of IFES, a Washington-based non-governmental organization that monitors election-related violence in Iraq. His job is to attempt to defuse the anger of volatile clerics, persuade Islamic political parties not to commit violent acts, and urge Sunni Iraqis to re-engage in the U.S.-backed constitutional process.

“In Iraq, to try and use any method of conflict resolution is very difficult and brings with it a cost to everyone,” he concedes. “Of course, we cannot talk to people outside the political process, or to al-Qaeda, or to those who would like to stop the process. But we can talk to political parties, to police and the interim government.”

It may seem incongruous to train mediators to work in war-torn Iraq, where suicide bombers and al-Qaeda operatives are intent on destabilizing the fragile political process and driving out U.S. forces. There is also political resistance to the drafting of a new constitution, although once it is approved, the country is supposed to hold elections in December.

But Allan Stitt, president of the internationally renowned Stitt Feld Handy Group which staged the Toronto workshop, says the underlying principles of dispute resolution are universal, even in a country torn by sectarian violence and terrorist attacks. The workshop focused on examples far removed from such an environment, ranging from divorced parents arranging summer plans for their children to sexual harassment in the workplace.

The participants learn to use “interest-based conflict resolution,” which focuses on people stating their interests, instead of their position, and then trying to find a common ground to get their interests to meet.

“Obviously [alternative dispute resolution] won’t work for suicide bombers, but we need to work with those who send out the suicide bombers, the political leadership that plants the ideas,” said Mr. Stitt, who has done training in Australia, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Trinidad, Uganda and other war-torn countries.

In Iraq, Dr. Ismail envisions using interest-based conflict resolution to mediate between Sunni and Shia clerics. Many Sunnis want the U.S. forces to leave the country before they will consider participating in the political process, while Shiites are willing to focus first on strengthening institutions, such as the police and army, and the infrastructure for electricity and potable water.

Dr. Ismail said there may be common ground if, for example, Sunnis can be convinced that U.S. troops can help meet Iraqi residents’ basic needs. About 40 per cent of the election-related violence in Iraq is caused not by insurgents, but by those participating in the political process, according to IFES. For example, members of Islamic political parties deface the advertisements of opposing parties, and some coerce people from other parties into supporting their position or candidate.

“I will try to gather these parties together and find out what they object to in the ads, and create dialogue within the parties,” Dr. Ismail said.

Monday, July 25, 2005 Page A10 (Globe and Mail)