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Iraq Conference Aims to Relieve Debt, Improve Security

International efforts to stabilize Iraq continue later this week when regional and international leaders meet in Egypt to discuss how Iraq's neighbors and the international community can help bring peace to the war-torn country. From Washington, VOA's Margaret Besheer looks at the upcoming Sharm El-Sheikh conference.

The meetings will be two-fold. On Thursday, the Iraqi government, in conjunction with the United Nations, will launch an initiative known as the Iraq Compact, which will deal with mostly economic issues. On Friday, foreign ministers and other high level officials will discuss Iraq's internal security and efforts to unify the country's political factions.

Iraq's Ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaida'ie tells VOA that Baghdad hopes to elicit broad support from the international community.

"Of course we want everybody's help in this," he said. "We want people to be engaged positively, to give support to the Iraqi government, public support, political support, financial support, if possible."

Iraq hopes some of its major creditors will write off billions of dollars in debt dating back to the Saddam Hussein regime. Some countries, such as Kuwait, which Saddam invaded in 1990, have been reluctant, saying Iraq is an oil-rich nation that can afford to repay. But an announcement of significant debt relief is expected at the conference.

The Sharm El-Sheikh meetings are really two separate conferences.

The first day will launch the Iraq Compact initiative. Iraq and the United Nations conceived the initiative more than a year ago. It lays out economic and political tasks, with deadlines, for the Iraqi government. If achieved, they would lead to specific supports from the international community.

The second day will bring together regional foreign ministers and the five permanent Security Council members to discuss Iraq's internal security and political reconciliation. U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey says Washington hopes to see active engagement from all participants.

"Certainly we want to see all countries that are there come to the table with not only positive words, but with the willingness to take positive actions to help Iraq deal with its very difficult situation right now," he said.

The United States wants to see Iran and Syria increase control over their borders and end their support of militias and insurgents.

"We have been very frank in the previous round at the envoy level in airing our concerns both about Iranian support for militias, about their provision of some of these very deadly IEDs [improvised explosive devices] that are having a serious impact on our troops," said Casey. "And I certainly expect that under discussions of those kinds of issues. The Secretary [Rice] will be equally forceful in making our case on those and I expect that others will also raise their concerns with Iranian behavior as well as Syrian behavior."

Iraq's government is also struggling to reconcile its Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. What was initially a domestic problem has taken on regional overtones, as some neighbors try to further their own interests by supporting specific political and ethnic groups inside Iraq. Ambassador Sumaida'ie says the best thing neighbors can do is to let Iraq solve its problems by itself.

"We are not seeking that our neighbors will devise a solution for us in Iraq," he said. "That has to be done by Iraqis. But we ask them to step back and reduce their interference."

The Ambassador says Iraq does not expect a miracle from the conference, but rather a real commitment of support from its neighbors as it works toward peace and stability.