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International Iraq Conference Begins in Egypt


A crucial international conference aimed at stabilizing Iraq has begun in the Egyptian resort town, Sharm el-Sheikh. It is possible American officials will meet with counterparts from Iran or Syria, on the sidelines of the two-day meeting. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Sharm el-Sheikh.

The first day of the meeting is devoted to a document known as the International Compact with Iraq. It is a five-year plan aimed at stabilizing Iraq, with the help and support of the international community.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the compact lays out a framework for building Iraq's economic development, political stability and lasting security.

"Major reforms can be realized only through a substantive international cooperation that bridges the gap between Iraq's needs and its capabilities, in the medium term," sand Ban. "It is time for the wide international community to demonstrate its strong commitment through financial and technical assistance, capacity building, investment and other forms of support."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on other countries to forgive Iraq's foreign debt. He says that would free the country to make needed reforms and devote its full resources to a national reconstruction program.

Just before the conference began, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told reporters Iraq is facing enormous challenges.

"I believe the resolution of the Iraqi crisis requires national reconciliation in Iraq, requires creating a genuine sense of national unity among Iraqis to confront terrorism and extremism. But that national unity needs to be supported and endorsed by a pact in the region and in the international community," said Salih. "Therefore we consider Arab, Iranian, American understanding and support for Iraqi transition as an important development."

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.

The United Nations and the World Bank are co-sponsoring the compact. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are taking part, as are the G-8 group of leading industrialized nations. Other multilateral organizations are also here, including the European Union, the Arab League and the OIC - the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The Iraq summit is bringing together a number of nations that have a history of tension and hostility - including the United States and Iran, whose top diplomats were seated in opposite corners of the cavernous conference hall.

It is possible U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet on the sidelines of the summit with Iranian Foreign Minister Monouchehr Mottaki, although diplomats from both sides are downplaying the idea.

There are also reports that Rice could meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. American 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.

All of the countries bordering are taking part in parts of the two-day meeting, although Syria was notably absent from the first session, which dealt with the international compact.

Syria is expected to attend the second day's meeting of Iraq's neighboring countries.

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