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International Conference Promises Support for Iraqi Election

An international conference on the future of Iraq, which ended in Egypt Tuesday, offered support for the interim Iraqi government's election plan, and called on all nations to help make the election a success. The meeting was held in the Egyptian town of Sharm El Sheikh and was attended by representatives of all of Iraq's neighbors, as well as by the Group of Eight industrialized nations, the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and China.

At a news conference after the end of the Sharm El-Sheikh talks, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the conference had brought together all the key members of the international community in support of Iraq's effort to establish democracy.

"The conference demonstrated a collective will to support the Iraqi people, to support the political transition toward building a fair, a democratic, stable Iraq," said Mr. Zebari.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who attended the conference for the United States, said that he had found widespread support for the Iraqi election plan.

"None of the delegations that I spoke to, and I didn't speak to all of them, but none that I did speak to, and it was a goodly number, suggested delay," said Mr. Powell. "In fact, if anything, there is a solid consensus that we must move forward and have these elections. And to have them on the time schedule laid out in 1546."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 calls for elections in Iraq by the end of January. During the conference, the Iraqi electoral committee announced that elections will take place on January 30.

The final statement issued by the conferences called on participants to support the U.N. staff that will be helping the Iraqis organize and monitor elections. But no country has committed troops to the U.N. Protection Force, and the high level of violence in Iraq has some worried whether the elections will be safe and comprehensive.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan joined the French delegation in urging the Interim Iraqi government to reach out to groups that have opposed it but have either renounced or never practiced violence.

The conference's final statement encourages the Iraqi government "to convene in Iraq, at the earliest possible date, before the general elections, representatives of the Iraqi political spectrum and civil society." French Foreign Minister Michel Bernier said this proposal was one of the most contentious issues discussed at Sharm El Sheikh meeting.

France was one of the countries that opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but French Foreign Minister Michel Bernier said now France supports the development of democracy and stability in Iraq.

Mr. Bernier said that France came to the conference with the aim of being useful. He said France wanted to find solutions and not to be a spectator or to be in opposition to other countries. The French foreign minister pointed to the significant debt forgiveness and aid that the European Union and the creditor nations of the Paris Club have granted Iraq recently.

Mr. Bernier insisted however that a withdrawal date should be set for foreign troops, saying France believes Resolution 1546 calls for this to take place by December 2005. The conference statement says the mandate of the U.S.-led forces is "not open-ended" but sets no date.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi also focused on this point.

"I believe foreign troops have to be out of Iraq as soon as possible, if not before the end of 2005, at least by the end of 2005," he said. "That was one of the issues that was insisted by many delegations here, that there should be a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraqi territory."

Iran was one of several neighboring countries with which the Iraqi delegation discussed security matters at the conference. The final statement calls on those neighboring countries to secure their borders with Iraq and to prevent the passage of terrorists, weapons, and funding for terrorism. Iraqi and U.S. officials have been particularly critical of an alleged lack of border control by Iran and Syria.

Secretary Powell said that during this conference, he had "direct" discussion with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara about the flow of terrorist, weapons and finances across the Syrian-Iraqi border. He said the Syrians have taken some steps recently, but that there is a lot more they can do.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mr. Kharrazi, denied that Iran supports terrorism in Iraq, and said the Iranian government is ready to establish a committee for border security with the Iraqis to exchange information and to work together on the issue. A meeting of the interior ministers of Iraq and its neighbours is scheduled to take place in Tehran next week.