UPPLANDS VASBY, Sweden (AP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on neighboring countries to forgive debt and war compensation from Saddam Hussein’s regime, saying they impede Iraq’s development.
Opening a U.N. conference on Iraq, al-Maliki also praised his country’s security and economic progress and said the government had kept Iraq from descending into the “abyss of civil war.”
“Iraq has achieved major success in the battle against terrorism with the support of the international community,” al-Maliki told the conference through a translator.
Iraq has at least US$67 billion (¤42.8 billion) in foreign debt, most of it owed to fellow Arab countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Al-Maliki said Iraq needs to get rid of the burden of war reparations and debt which he called “an impediment against reconstruction and development.” More than 500 delegates from dozens of countries and international organizations were attending the conference outside Stockholm, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
“The Iraqis don’t need large sums of money,” Rice told reporters ahead of the conference. “They do need large infusions of technical assistance (and) project support.”
“I would hope that the international community would accelerate its efforts to help make Iraq a capable state,” she said.
The conference comes as the U.S. military says violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in more than four years, following a series of crackdowns on Sunni and Shiite extremists.
Ban said there was new hope for the Iraqi people “to rebuild their country after years of war, dictatorship and neglect” but called for reconciliation among the country’s Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.
“I urge Iraqi communities to work together in a spirit of national unity to resolve fundamental issues that continue to divide them,” Ban told the conference. “These include the federal structure of Iraq and the sharing of the country’s wealth and natural resources.”
Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has long felt it is being sidelined by the majority Shiites and the Kurds, who dominate the Iraqi parliament and al-Maliki’s government.
The largest Sunni Arab political bloc pulled its members out of Iraq’s 39-member Cabinet in August, saying it was not getting enough say in decision-making. Sunni politicians have been negotiating a possible return, but said Wednesday they suspended talks due to a dispute over ministry posts.
The conference also offers an opportunity for sideline meetings between delegates. However, no private talks are expected between Rice and Mottaki, who ignored each other at a conference in Kuwait last month.
The conference is the first annual review of the International Compact with Iraq, a sweeping five-year economic and political reform package that Ban helped broker last May in Egypt.
The compact defined international help for Iraq, including debt relief, but also set tough commitments on the Baghdad government, particularly carrying out reforms aimed at giving Sunni Arabs a greater role in the political process.
Several demonstrations were planned in Stockholm and outside the conference center in Upplands Vasby, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the capital. Officers from seven counties, the SAPO security police and a national anti-terror unit will be deployed during the conference.