updated 8/31/2007 6:53:39 PM ET 2007-08-31T22:53:39

Representatives of feuding Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq were meeting at a seminar behind closed doors Friday to discuss ways of ending the bloodshed, conference organizers said.

The Crisis Management Initiative, a conflict-prevention group headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said it was hosting the seminar to examine how lessons learned from peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland could be applied to Iraq.

Seminar organizers would not say who was attending, except to confirm that both “Sunni and Shiite groups” had arrived. The venue and other details will be kept secret until the talks are over, organizers added.

Finnish broadcaster YLE said representatives of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the leader of the largest Sunni Arab political group, Adnan al-Dulaimi, were at the gathering. Humam Hammoudi, the Shiite chairman of the Iraqi Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, also was in Finland, YLE said.

Officials from South Africa and Northern Ireland also are participating in the seminar, CMI spokeswoman Meeri-Maria Jaarva said. The meeting was expected to last two days.

Ahtisaari himself was in Denmark at a different peace conference.

“The only thing I can say is I was approached by those who have been organizing this event, and (asked) whether they could come with the Iraqis to Finland,” Ahtisaari told The Associated Press in Copenhagen.

He said he hoped it included “as wide a representation from Iraqi society as possible.”

A complex problem
The divides between Sunni and Shiites are among the most complex problems in trying to rebuild Iraq. Sectarian attacks — from suicide bombings to execution-style slayings — have claimed tens of thousands of lives. Sunnis, who once held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, also have turned their back on the Shiite-led government over claims it seeks to keep Sunnis from sharing power.

Ahtisaari and his group have facilitated peace talks for other conflicts. In 2005, Ahtisaari and CMI helped end 30 years of fighting between Aceh rebels and the Indonesian government with peace talks in Finland.

Neighbor Norway — a key player in Middle East peacemaking — held secret negotiations in its capital, Oslo, that led to a historic Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in 1993.

CMI said it was convening the closed-door meetings in conjunction with the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies of the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Finnish Foreign Ministry said it was not involved.

“This will probably be a one-off meeting, but if we are very lucky, it will result in the idea of continuing” further talks, said Kalle Liesinen, who will take over as CMI’s executive director on Oct. 1.

“It’s not a question of peace talks but an attempt at directing people’s thoughts to the future,” Liesinen said in an interview with Finnish broadcaster MTV3.

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