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Iraq conference offers hope of progress

By Steve Negus, Iraq Correspondent, Roula Khalaf in London and Heba Saleh in Cairo

Published: May 2 2007 03:00 | Last updated: May 2 2007 03:00

When Iraq's government sits downon Thursday with its neighbours and world powers it hopes a high-level conference dedicated to stabilisation and reconstruction will offer a chance of real progress.

However, increasing dissatisfaction among Sunni Arab countries with Iraq's Shia-led government as well as heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran might limit what can be achieved in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

The two-day conference will bring together two diplomatic processes – a series of meetings between Iraq's neighbours aimed at stabilising the country, and the United Nations-sponsored Compact with Iraq which sees Baghdad commit to administrative and political reforms in exchange for assistance.

Iraq has an uneasy relationship with most of its neighbours. Iran and Syria have been accused of supporting militants in Iraq, and some Iraqi politicians say Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are hostile to the very idea that the Shia majority should rule the country.

But Baghdad hopes the conference will lead to commitments by neighbours not to support militants and get help from the Sunni states in reaching an accommodation with Sunni insurgents.

It also hopes to end what it considers the settling of scores between Iran and the US on Iraqi territory.

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraqi foreign minister, said: "For us to succeed . . . we need a conducive, supportive regional environment. The only way to achieve that is through . . . asking the US, Syria and Iran to keep away from settling their scores in Iraq. This has been affecting the security situation badly and it's very frustrating."

Most delegations will be headed by foreign ministers, and the planned attendance of both Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and Manouchehr Mottaki, her Iranian counterpart, has led to speculation that the two might meet.

The previous neighbours' conference in Baghdad in March saw Iraq's relations with its allies upstaged by US-Iran tensions about Tehran's nuclear programme and the fate of five Iranians detained by the US in northern Iraq. These threaten to overshadow events again.

Gholamhossein Elham, the Iranian government spokesman, said there would be no US-Iranian talks. However, Iraqi officials still expect US and Iranian diplomats to meet on the sidelines of the summit, and say they will push for the release of the so-called Arbil five. Mr Zebari also said the US had agreed to grant the detainees family visits.

"There has been a little bit of improvement on all [regional] issues. It's not up to our expectations but overall the political atmosphere has improved," he said.

Iraqi officials say the conference will also witness the formal inauguration of the International Compact for Iraq, in which Baghdad will present a timetable of reform commitments which it hopes will lead to pledges of financial assistance.

Barham Saleh, Iraq's deputy prime minister, said: "The compact document includes a detailed annex specifying benchmarks of economic and political reforms with timelines, and spanning four to five years."

Among the most significant of such pledges would be declarations by Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to whom Iraq is estimated to owe at least $15bn each, that they would match the Paris Club of creditor nations in writing off 80 per cent of Baghdad's debt.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said two weeks ago that the kingdom would forgive 80 per cent of the debt, but little has been heardof the deal since and one analyst familiar with Saudi government thinking said that debt relief was an "ongoing issue [which] is still not settled".

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