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Iraq Conference Declared A Success

The conference drew top officials from Iraq's neighbors and beyond (epa) May 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A two-day conference on Iraq's future was declared a success, although a much-anticipated meeting of top U.S. and Iranian officials never materialized.

"I'm very much encouraged by the successful outcome of the two-day meeting on Iraq," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in closing the conference. "The first meeting on the International Compact with Iraq was a great success."

Ban noted that many participants at the event, held at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, promised to forgive much of Iraq's prewar debt, estimated at between $50 billion and $60 billion.

Official Attendance

Participants at the conference included foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria -- as well as representatives of the G8, the United Nations, and the European Union. Also attending was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The ministers worked on a five-year plan -- called the International Compact with Iraq, or ICI -- which included not only financial help but political support to help stabilize the country, which is now beset by an insurgency and sectarian fighting.

The ministers worked on a five-year plan that includes financial and political support to help stabilize Iraq.

But several delegations said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had to earn such support by acting more decisively to end the country's civil strife. Particularly outspoken was Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who demanded that al-Maliki disarm Iraq's warring militias.

Al-Maliki countered that it was up to neighboring states to help stop the inflow of foreign fighters and weapons into his country.

"Now after the fall of the dictatorship [of Saddam Hussein], 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."

Syria-U.S. Meeting

The United States says weapons and fighters have entered Iraq from both Iran and Syria. However, on May 3 in Baghdad, the U.S. military said Syria seemed to be gaining better control over its border. Shortly after that announcement, Rice held her meeting with Walid al-Muallim, Syria's foreign minister.

Secretary Rice leaving a conference session on May 3 (AFP)

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," Rice said. "I hope that Iranian support for terrorism will cease."

Rice never got the chance to say that directly to Mottaki during the conference. Both diplomats said the opportunity for a meeting simply didn't present itself.

Mottaki departed early from a dinner with Rice and other delegates on May 3, apparently because the dress worn by the evening's entertainer, a female Ukrainian violinist, did not meet Islamic standards.
Officials said, however, that lower-level Iranian and U.S. diplomats -- the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi -- held a brief informal talk during the two-day meeting.

Iraqi Opportunity

Overall, the conference was useful as one of a planned series of international gatherings to find ways of stabilizing Iraq, according to Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ottaway told RFE/RL that Iraq has an opportunity to dramatically lower its debt as long as its government cracks down on the militias, both Shi'a and Sunni. That, she says, could lead to more security cooperation across its borders in Iran and Syria.

But Ottaway believes the conference may have had fewer benefits for the United States. She says the Bush administration had hoped to present to the world a kind of ad-hoc alliance with what Washington saw as "moderate" Muslim states in the Middle East. They include the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt and Jordan.

But the conference didn't work out that way, Ottaway said. "The U.S. has been trying to rally on its side the so-called moderate (Middle Eastern) countries against Iran and the groups in Iraq that are allegedly supported by Iran," Ottaway said. "Now that policy has failed. These countries -- Saudi Arabia in particular -- Saudi Arabia is talking to Iran in its own way. So what we have is the U.S. with an agenda that may really be different from the agenda of the other countries that are participating."

As a result, Ottaway said, the Sharm el-Sheikh conference may turn out to be less about establishing stability in Iraq and more about the first hints of new alignments within the Middle East now that Saddam Hussein is no longer president of Iraq.

Still, Ottaway said the United States did manage to reestablish contact with Syria, which it's avoided for more than two years. And she expects that a meeting between Rice and Mottaki -- probably one as casual as her session with al-Muallim -- probably will take place in the near future.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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