SHARM AL-SHEIKH, Egypt, (Reuters) – An international conference to bring peace and economic recovery to Iraq opened in Egypt on Thursday, with all eyes on a possible meeting between the United States and its old enemies, Iran and Syria.
In his opening speech to the two-day conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on all countries to write off Iraq’s foreign debts.
Ministers from 50 countries and international organisations gathered in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh for the meetings. On Thursday, delegates will endorse an International Compact for Iraq, a five-year plan offering Iraq financial, political and technical support in return for key reforms.
On Friday Iraq, its neighbours and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council will talk about border security, Iraqi refugees and political reconciliation between Iraqi factions and ethnic and religious communities. But much of the attention was on the prospect that the United States will abandon its longstanding reluctance to hold high-level talks with the Iranian and Syrian governments.
Senior Arab officials said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would meet both Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.
A time has not been set for any meetings and the United States has not confirmed they will happen. A U.S. official travelling with Rice said: “If it happens, it could happen today.” “Any encounter with the Iranian will not likely be a substantive discussion,” he added.
The Bush administration has tried to isolate the two governments, which are allied in opposition to U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East.
Washington, at loggerheads with Iran over its nuclear programme, also says Iran and Syria sponsor what it calls terrorism by supporting the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. But setbacks to U.S. policy in Iraq and Lebanon have driven the Bush administration towards a dialogue, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq last year.
U.S. officials say there is a higher probability Rice will meet with Moualem, who will be with Rice on Friday at an expanded meeting of Middle East peace mediators.
Maliki said forgiving Iraq of its debts was badly-needed. “We call on everybody participating in this conference to write off the accumulated debts of Iraq,” Maliki said.
Iraq, which sits on the world’s third-largest proven crude oil reserves but is struggling to rebuild its shatterred economy after four years of war following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
As part of the International Compact process, Egypt has agreed to forgive all Iraqi debts to Cairo, amounting to $800 million, Iraqi finance minister Bayan Jabor said on Thursday.
Jabor said that three Eastern European countries — Slovenia, Bulgaria and Poland — would also agree to forgive 80 percent of Iraqi debt but did not say how much that would be. He said the European Union would grant Iraq $200 million, and he expected grants from some Asian countries as well. “They will help us and in return Iraq will have to commit to finding real national reconciliation,” Jaber told Reuters.
The most important reforms, which U.S. officials want passed by the end of summer, are a revenue-sharing oil law, a law to let members of Saddam Hussein’s former ruling party back into public life, and a governorate elections law that will enable a date to be set for provincial polls.
The U.S. and Iraqi governments hope that these benchmarks will foster reconciliation and draw minority Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency and back into the political process.
Speaking at the opening session, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit put the conservative Arab view that national reconciliation is the key to stability in Iraq and that all sections of Iraqi society must make concessions to the others.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia see the Iraqi government as partisan on the side of the country’s Shi’ite Muslim community and insensitive towards the Sunni community, analysts say.
Maliki put the Iraqi government view that the problem is violent Islmaist extremists and that the government is doing its best to be make progres on reconciliation and to be evenhanded.
On Wednesday the president of Yemen told President George W. Bush that he would guarantee a place for himself in history if he should succeed in establishing a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.
After meeting with Bush at the White House, President Ali Abdullah Saleh urged his host to pursue an initiative put forward by the Arabs that would trade full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s return of captured Arab lands and a just solution for Palestinian refugees. “I wish that his excellency (Bush) would pursue his effort and will continue his effort in implementing the Arab initiative which was adopted in the summit of Beirut to maintain peace in the region,” Saleh said. “I am sure that adopting such initiative would end 70 percent of the problems in the region.”
Arab League leaders approved the initiative in a 2002 meeting in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, but in a short time it was shunted aside as Iraq and other Middle East problems gained urgency.
“We had a very good discussion about the neighborhood in which the president lives,” Bush said. “And we spent a lot of time talking about our mutual desire to bring radicals and murderers to justice. And I thanked the president for his strong support in this war against extremists and terrorists.”
Saleh responded in Arabic that he was pleased “for the limitless support by President Bush and the United States for Yemen in the field of combating terror.” Then he went into the Israeli-Arab problem. “I would like on this occasion to highly express my gratification and my appreciation for the brave position taken by President Bush since the first moment he took power in this country, since he expressed his belief in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, side by side with the state of Israel,” Saleh said. He then talked about his desire for Bush to bring to fruition his concept, which Bush proposed in 2002, to have a Palestinian state living in peace side-by-side with Israel. When he proposed the idea and a “road map” to achieve it, it envisioned the advent of the two-state solution by 2005. “Of course,” Saleh said Wednesday, “you will be in history if you can be successful in establishing the independent Palestinian state before leaving the White House.”
Bush responded: “Shukran,” Arabic for “Thank you.”