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Iraq Conference Focus Turns To Security

Syrian Foreign Minister al-Muallim at the conference today (AFP) May 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An international conference on Iraq is in its second and final day in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Ministers are meeting to discuss ways Iraq's neighboring states can help reduce sectarian violence in the country.

Much attention is focused on the delegations from the United States and Iran, the two major foreign players in the Iraq crisis. Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told journalists that Iran and the United States had held talks "at the level of experts" on the conference's sidelines. But he said there has been no meeting so far involving U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki opened today's proceedings by calling on neighboring states to help stop the inflow of fighters and their funds into Iraq.

"Now, after the fall of the dictatorship, we will not allow terrorist organizations to [find] shelter in the Iraqi territories," al-Maliki said. "And this is what urges us to demand that neighboring countries stop the infiltration of terrorist groups inside Iraq, and prevent them from getting any funds and political and media support -- as has been agreed at [all] the meetings of the Arab interior ministers, and the conferences of the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors."

Regional Threat

Al-Maliki also said there will be a price to pay if they do not heed his call.

"Backing terror will not be of benefit to any given party, and will not save [that party] from the danger of killers" he told the conference. "The terror that kills innocent civilians in public places, hits universities, destroys libraries, mosques, and churches is the same terror that hit in Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and here in Sharm el-Sheikh."

"We will not allow terrorist organizations to shelter in the Iraqi territories," al-Maliki said.

He was referring to a terrorist bombing in Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 that killed 88 people.

Washington accuses Iran of supplying arms and funds to members of Shi'ite militias that resist the U.S.-led occupation but which also battle Sunni militants for control of neighborhoods.

Washington also accuses Syria of letting fighters and funds enter Iraq to aid Sunni insurgents.

All of Iraq's neighbors deny interfering or permitting other parties to interfere through them in Iraq's affairs.

Bilateral Breakthrough

On May 3, the conference produced one breakthrough that offers at least some hope of easing the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held bilateral talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim to discuss Iraq's security directly.

Rice said today that she and al-Muallim discussed ways of keeping insurgents from using Syria as a base from which to send weapons and foreign fighters into Iraq. She said she hoped Iran would do the same. "I sincerely hope that Iran will act in what it says is its own self-interest to stop the flow of arms to extremists, who then use them to hurt our forces and innocent Iraqis," she said. "I hope that Iranian support for terrorism will cease."

Iran Foreign Minister Mottaki speaking in Sharm el-Sheikh today (AFP)

The meeting was the first high-level talks between the two countries in more than two years and signals a new U.S. effort to engage, rather than isolate, Damascus.

Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 amid allegations of Syrian involvement.

Much of the attention on the Sharm el-Sheikh conference has focused on whether the U.S. secretary of state would meet her Iranian counterpart. So far, third-party efforts to bring together Rice and Mottaki have produced no results.

Following today's meeting involving Iranian and U.S. diplomats, Iraq's Zebari said he did not know what had happened during the talks, but said he thought the results were "positive."

The two states have had no relations since U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran immediately following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Radio Farda correspondent Mahtab Farid, who is covering the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, says one apparent effort occurred at a May 3 dinner for delegates. Conference host Egypt put the U.S. and Iranian tables close together in the dining room.

"The way the tables were set up, these two countries were put together very close to each other, probably only a couple of [meters] from each other," Farid said. "I have been told by one of the U.S. State Department officials, who did not want to be named, that as soon as Secretary Rice walked in, Manuchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, left. But then [Mottaki's] excuse was that there was a lady violinist who was wearing a sexy red dress -- she was wearing a shawl on it -- but he was objecting to the fact the lady was wearing a revealing red dress."

Rice herself has been ambiguous about whether she would try to meet Mottaki. She said on May 3 that she would not miss any opportunity to deliver a message to Tehran about its need to support Iraq.

"We haven't planned and have not asked for a bilateral meeting, nor have [the Iranians] asked us," she added.

Yesterday's Results

Meanwhile, conference delegates pledged on May 3 to forgive roughly $32 billion of Iraq's remaining $56 billion debt from the Saddam Hussein era.

That came as participants endorsed a UN-sponsored International Compact with Iraq (ICI) designed to help the country with development and reconstruction.

The participants at the conference include Iraq's neighbors, as well as representatives of the Group of Eight, the United Nations, and the European Union.

(Nabil Khoury and Abdelilah Nuaimi of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report.)

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