SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AFP) -A conference aimed at rescuing Iraq from chaos and bankruptcy kicked off Thursday in Egypt amid an unprecedented display of international unity.
Foreign ministers and top diplomats from more than 50 countries gathered in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to launch a five-year plan aimed at stabilising war-torn Iraq.
Participants were on Thursday expected to adopt the International Compact with Iraq (ICI), a five-year plan to stabilise the war-torn country and develop its moribund economy.
In his opening remarks, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he hoped the conference “will herald a new level in Iraq’s relations with the world’s nations.”
He voiced his hope the meeting would yield significant progress on both the economic and security fronts.
Iraq’s Finance Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh told AFP before the conference kicked off he expected countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt to write off about 40-50 billion dollars of debt at the meeting.
Iraqi officials also said they hoped the conference would see their neighbours offer a strong commitment to stabilising their country, plagued by a bloody anti-American insurgency and relentless communal bloodletting.
Heading to Egypt, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the onus was on Iraq’s neighbours to show their commitment to ending violence, warning that their own stability was at stake.
“The most important message that I will be delivering is that a stable, unified and democratic Iraq is an Iraq that will be a pillar of stability in the Middle East and an Iraq that is not stable and not an Iraq for all people will be a source of instability for the region,” she said.
Completing a shift in US policy, Rice was expected to talk to Syria and Iran, who have been accused by Washington of funding and abetting Iraq’s Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias respectively.
A possible meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki would mark the first high level bilateral talks since the United States cut relations in 1980.
However, Iran has yet to give an unequivocal sign it is ready for talks and Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostavafi said on Tuesday the conditions were not right for a “dialogue” with Rice at the conference.
Rice indicated she would also be ready to discuss issues other than Iraq with the Iranian foreign minister, including the standoff over the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.
“I think I could handle any question as asked,” she said.
A similar gathering of Iraq’s neighbours and key players with a stake in its future took place in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004, but little progress ensued.
“The conference is an important forum to harness and mobilise regional and international support for Iraq”, said Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh.
“We hope this conference marks transition for Iraq from being a point of regional and international contention and zone of rivalry to one of consensus.”
Speaking to reporters before the gathering got under way, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett stressed the two-day conference was a unique opportunity to give fresh impetus to the stabilisation process in Iraq.
“This will be an occasion where the international community can show their force to the government and people of Iraq to help them to build a better future,” she said.
Key points of the ICI plan include new laws on oil revenue sharing and on the return into public life of members of Saddam Hussein’s former Iraqi regime.
The roadmap also outlines various plans for technical and financial support to the embattled Iraqi government, with benchmarks observers hope will help stem the tide of civil strife that has engulfed Iraq over the past two years.
Friday’s meetings are expected to bring together Iraq’s neighbours in a bid to step up cooperation on security issues.
The conference comes against the backdrop of an intense battle between US President George W. Bush’s administration and the Democrat-dominated Congress over the war in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Bush dashed the hopes of some of Iraq’s neighbours for a firm timetable for the withdrawal of US troops by vetoing a bill setting a start date for a pullout.