Prague, 22 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The two-day meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh is the first major international conference on Iraq in the Middle East since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime more than 18 months ago.
The event is bringing together some 20 foreign ministers from the U.S., Europe, Russia, China, and the Middle East. Also attending are UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the leader of the Arab League.
Jamshid Chaharlengi, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda, reported that representatives of countries from the region are meeting by themselves today over Iraq ahead of a full meeting of all participating countries tomorrow.
"Most delegations have arrived, the [delegations from] the neighboring countries have arrived, and they are going to have [a day of] just all the neighboring countries of Iraq and Egypt. And the big conference will be tomorrow, with the [Group of Eight] delegations, the UN, EU, and the OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference], and the Arab League," Chaharlengi reported.
In the run-up to the conference, the Egyptian hosts played down any expectations of major breakthroughs at the summit. But Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said the participants will try to reach a basic agreement on how to stabilize Iraq after months of disagreements among many of the participating states.
The meeting is not expected to address U.S. efforts to get more countries to contribute troops to the multinational security force in Iraq.
Henner Fuertig, Iraq specialist at the German Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Hamburg, said that at times the disagreements have been so pronounced that the fact the summit is taking place at all can be considered a significant success.
"In August when they first had the idea in Washington, they offered to hold the conference," Fuertig said. "But originally it was planned for the beginning of November or the end of October, and this was rejected by France and the other permanent members of the [UN] Security Council except Britain, of course, because really they thought it was assistance for the election of President [George W.] Bush. So, in that sense, it is a success that it will take place, that it takes place now."
Beyond the Americans and Europeans, the conference brings together several other countries that rarely discuss the Iraq crisis directly with Washington. These include Syria and Iran. Washington has accused both states of undermining Iraq's stability.
U.S. officials say they hope the meeting will encourage both Syria and Iran -- as well as other bordering states -- to do more to prevent Islamic militants from joining the insurgents in Iraq.
But it is unclear how much cooperation Washington will get from Tehran at the summit. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said yesterday that Iran wanted to attend the conference to express its strong opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Assefi said Iran would "protest against the methods of the United States, [and] insist on the necessity of withdrawing American troops from Iran and the organization of elections on schedule."
The Sharm el-Sheikh meeting is not expected to address U.S. efforts to get more countries to contribute troops to the multinational security force in Iraq. Officials in Baghdad have said previously they do not want troops from neighboring states on Iraqi territory.
A draft for a final declaration by the summit participants has been under negotiation for weeks. The draft wording stresses that the U.S. presence in Iraq is not open-ended, calls for the Iraqi government to encourage participation of a broad range of political parties in the January election, and urges all sides in the Iraq conflict to show restraint and reduce the level of violence there.
Fuertig said the call for the government of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to open the election to a broad spectrum of political parties is the most significant element in the communique.
"The phrase in the communique is more or less an attempt to press the Allawi government to undertake any effort to guarantee that all parts of the political landscape of Iraq will take part in the elections -- will not refuse to take part," Fuertig said.
Fuertig said the call reflects widespread concern among the conference states over threats by some Iraqi Sunni organizations to boycott the elections.
But the analyst said the final declaration falls short of presummit efforts by France, in particular, to make the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting a forum in which Sunni groups could participate directly in the discussion of how to stabilize Iraq.
"It was raised by Paris, Moscow, and Beijing to propose that the official Iraqi resistance should take part in the conference," Fuertig said. "It is not only a question of terror and terrorists. You have more or less recognized resistance groups among the Sunni, you have the Iraqi Islamic Party, which can be translated as the Iraqi Muslim Brothers, you have the Supreme Council of Sunni Clergy, there are many, many groups you could have invited. This would have been a real success."
Efforts to develop a broader international consensus on Iraq got a boost yesterday as the world's largest economic powers agreed to write off as much as 80 percent of the some $40 billion that Iraq owes them.
The decision by the so-called Paris Club of 19 Western creditor countries ended a long-running dispute between Washington and leading European opponents of the U.S.-led Iraq war over how much debt to cancel. Those opponents included France, Germany, and Russia. Paris and Moscow, which are both are major creditors, had previously proposed a waiver of around 50 percent of Iraq's debt to them.
Iraq owes an additional $80 billion debt to Arab governments, mostly to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the Paris Club agreement will encourage Iraq's regional creditors to also write off much of Baghdad's debt to help speed reconstruction efforts. There has been no official response yet from those countries.