SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AFP) -World leaders converged on the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh Wednesday for key talks aimed at stabilising Iraq, the first such round of multilateral diplomacy since the 2003 invasion.
Amid hopes the fresh initiative could help end the bloodshed in Iraq, speculation also abounded over the prospect of the first high-level talks between the United States and Iran in almost three decades.
On her way to Egypt, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the onus was on Iraq’s neighbours to show their commitment to ending the bloodshed, 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 told reporters.
The two-day conference will mark be the first time high-ranking officials from all the powers with a stake in Iraq sit down together in a bid to stem the spiralling chaos.
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 rumoured meeting with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, would mark the highest-level official contact between the two foes since the United States cut relations in 1980.
However, Tehran 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.
Speaking to reporters during a stopover in Ireland, Rice indicated she would 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.
“The developments between Iran, the United States and the West have had a negative effect on Iraq’s situation, and the more they have dialogue together the more it will help the Iraqi government’s efforts to succeed,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said during a visit to Tehran last week.
In the run-up to the landmark conference, Western and regional leaders have hammered home the same message that Iraq’s influential neighbours need to do their share.
On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki again warned his neighbours that the “terrorist attacks that target Iraq are not limited to Iraq, but will spread to every country in the world.”
The Sharm el-Sheikh conference is the second attempt in two months to bring Iraq’s neighbours together in a bid to reach a consensus on means of ending the carnage.
As some of the 27 foreign ministers and diplomats representing 22 other countries were expected to start arriving, Egyptian police imposed a tight security cordon around Sharm el-Sheikh.
Rice was expected to arrive in Egypt later Wednesday and go straight into preliminary talks with Maliki and other officials.
The two-day conference starts in earnest on Thursday with the launch of the International Compact with Iraq (ICI), an initiative providing a framework for Iraq’s security and economic development.
US Treasury Deputy Secretary Robert Kimmitt said the talks would seek to achieve further debt relief for Iraq’s embattled economy and set clear benchmarks for its increased integration.
But he remained cautious on the results that could be expected from the talks.
“Now not everything is going to be achieved at this meeting in terms of all of the commitments that will need to be made to Iraq over time but I think as the Iraqis meet more and more of their targets, you’ll see more and more commitments to them,” he said.
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 the region’s countries for a US troop withdrawal deadline by vetoing a bill calling for pullout timeline.