Forty-nine countries confirm Iraq conference attendance

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Egypt to propose an Iraq cease-fire at this week s conference

CAIRO: Forty-nine countries have confirmed they will attend a conference on Iraq in Egypt on May 3-4, the official Mena agency said Tuesday.

The Iraqi delegation will be headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, while most other countries will be represented by their foreign ministers, Mena said.

The meetings in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh – one on security and the other among Iraqi donors aiming to slash Baghdad s foreign debt and boost reconstruction efforts – will involve all Iraq s neighbors.

Also included are the five permanent UN Security Council members plus representatives from the United Nations, the European Union, Canada, Germany and Japan.

Thursday s meeting will be within the framework of the International Compact with Iraq (ICI), launched in Baghdad in July with UN and World Bank support.

The compact, which has strong support from Washington, has goals that include Iraq s equal treatment of all its ethnic groups, an equitable partition of the country s oil export revenues and support for the government to fight corruption and practice good governance.

The ICI is to be adopted on Thursday, after three sessions, including two that are closed, according to state-owned daily Al-Akhbar. On Friday, a meeting on Iraq s security will bring together Iraq s six neighbors – Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey – as well as Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the United Nations.

The conferences could also see a meeting between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki. That would be the highest level discussions between the two nations since Washington broke off relations with Tehran in 1980.

Syria could also be at the centre of attention, with Washington not excluding a meeting between Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Muallem.

Further deep differences emerged between Iraq and Arab countries on Monday days before a crucial conference aimed at bringing the region s support for the Baghdad government, with Egypt proposing a three-month cease-fire between Iraqi forces and insurgents.

An Iraqi diplomat said Baghdad was strongly opposed to the cease-fire proposal, which implicitly treats the Shia-led Iraqi government and the Sunni-led resistance as equal partners in the country.

Egypt is trying to get the cease-fire call into final resolutions from two days of conferences on Thursday and Friday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

The gathering aims to rally the divided participants – Arab nations, Iran, the United States, Russia, China and top European powers – around a united plan to stabilize Iraq.

Arab nations are pressing the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to take concrete steps to better incorporate Iraq s Sunni Arabs into the government and military – including changing the constitution and ending the system for purging former members of Saddam Hussein s ousted Baath Party, which was dominated by Sunnis.

The Egyptian proposal only underlines the differences between Arab nations and Al-Maliki s government. Iraq s Shias and Kurds, who now dominate the government, have long viewed Sunni-led Arab governments as biased toward Iraq s Sunnis and sympathetic toward the Sunni-led insurgency.

Under the Egyptian proposal, the participants would call on all parties to implement a cease fire for an initial period of three months to allow for a conducive environment to help foster the political process and national accord, according to a copy of the draft final resolutions, obtained by the Associated Press. It did not elaborate on how insurgents could be brought on board for a cease-fire.

The draft resolutions are still being finalized by senior diplomats from the participating countries, but an Iraqi official close to the discussions said the Egyptian proposal is a nonstarter.

This is not a good idea. How can we have a cease-fire with terrorists? said the Iraqi diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. Although the United States has been pushing Al-Maliki to reach out for Sunni Arabs, it is highly unlikely that it would back a cease-fire call with insurgents who are battling US forces as well as Iraqi troops.

There were also still differences over a resolution on how to build reconciliation between Iraq s Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.

An Arab-backed resolution calls for the Iraqi government to take constructive steps toward reviewing and amending the constitution and the Debaathification law. But the Iraqi-backed version of the resolution calls only for steps toward reviewing the constitution, without a mention of changing it or a mention of the Debaathification program.

Syria is pressing for the final statement to also include a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, a step opposed by Washington and the Iraqi government.

There have been some differences in the points of view about the presence of the foreign troops in Iraq. There is a need for a compromise, and there is no need to mention a specific timetable, said Italy s ambassador to Egypt, Antonio Badini, who participated in talks in Cairo on Monday between diplomats from the participants aimed at hammering out the final resolutions.

Iraq s deputy foreign minister, Labid Abbawi, who headed his country s delegation in the preliminary talks, said the differences could be resolved in further talks.

Some of the points need to be resolved, and the participants want to go back to their governments to resolve them, Abbawi told reporters.

The differences could heighten tensions at the gathering, which is to be attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The US and Baghdad are hoping the conference can produce a strong show of international support for Al-Maliki s government – particularly a commitment to reduce Iraq s huge debts.

But Arab countries are demanding that Iraq do more to reach out to disgruntled Sunni Arabs before pledging any substantial aid to the troubled country. Al-Maliki has rejected any conditions on his government.

In June, Al-Maliki announced a national reconciliation program that offers amnesty to members of the Sunni-led insurgency who are not involved in terrorist activities and amends the Debaathification law from their jobs. But Arab countries have called those steps incomplete and not implemented.

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