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Top Diplomats Gather for Iraq Conference


Foreign ministers from around the world have been arriving in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for an international conference aimed at stabilizing Iraq. It is possible that the United States will meet with Iran and Syria on the sidelines of the two-day conference. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the meeting aims to build support for Iraq's political process and for its fight against terrorism.

Speaking to reporters at the airport, he said Iraq's problems are spreading outside its borders.

The Sharm el-Sheikh conference is seen as the biggest and most inclusive diplomatic push to end Iraq's crisis since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. All of the countries bordering Iraq are taking part, as well as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the G-8 group of leading industrialized nations.

Nobody is pretending the two-day meeting will end the chaos in Iraq. Arab League spokesman Hisham Yousef told reporters, Iraq will need help to solve its problems.

"But they can't do it by themselves," said Yousef. "They need help. There are all kinds of influences, from different regional countries and from countries abroad, on a number of political forces in Iraq. So, they can contribute by encouraging the political forces in Iraq to become more flexible, to try to reach compromises, to reach agreements and so on."

He said the only focus is on helping the Iraqi people get out of the crisis.

Despite U.S. efforts to bring in more troops to stabilize the situation, violence continues, and a growing number of refugees are straining resources in several of Iraq's neighboring countries.

On her way to the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice downplayed expectations for the meeting. She said it will take time to overcome suspicions, but the choice is between a stable Iraq or an unstable Middle East.

Speaking in Washington, President Bush said he is looking forward to seeing the outcome of the meeting, and he expressed hope Iraq will get greater support from its neighbors and the international community.

"It's in the world's interest that this young democracy survive," said president Bush. "It is certainly in the interest of the neighborhood that Iraq be a country that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself, a government which rejects radicalism."

Previous international meetings aimed at stabilizing Iraq have yielded few results. Arab League spokesman Hisham Yousef said past failure is no reason to stop trying.

"We're continuing to try," he said. "Now, there is more focus on the political, on the process of reconciliation, and this is an emphasis that we have been working on for a very long time, and we welcome this new focus."

The Iraq conference brings together a number of nations that have a history of tension and hostility, including the United States, Iran and Syria.

It is possible Secretary of State Rice will meet her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on the sidelines of the meeting, although recent remarks by several Iranian officials indicate that the matter is not settled.

Rice said they would not hold full-scale negotiations, but she said if the two happened to meet, they would, in her words, "be polite and see what the encounter brings."

There are also reports that Rice could meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. U.S. officials have not confirmed a planned meeting, but on a stopover in Ireland on the way to the conference, Rice said she would not rule it out.

The United States has frosty relations with Syria and no diplomatic relations at all with Iran.

In addition to stability and security issues, the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting also will be a major meeting of donor nations. Both Iraqi and U.S. officials say they are hoping for an agreement on debt relief, which they say would ease the financial burden on the Iraqi government.

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