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Iraq Seeks Debt Forgiveness at UN Conference


At a U.N.-sponsored conference in Stockholm, aimed at charting a course for the reconstruction of Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki called Thursday for further relief from his country's foreign debt burden. But Iraq's largest creditors, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, sent only junior representatives, signaling an unwillingness to write off more than they already have. Kevin Billinghurst has more from the Swedish capital.

The Stockholm conference brought together representatives of nearly 100 nations in the first annual review of the International Compact with Iraq, which began last year in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The process aims to generate increased international support for Iraq in return for political and economic reforms. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the meeting on an optimistic note.

"There is new hope that the people and government of Iraq are overcoming daunting challenges and working together to rebuild their country after years of war, dictatorship and neglect," he said.

The conference unanimously adopted the Stockholm Declaration, recognizing efforts made by the Iraqi government to improve security and combat terrorism and sectarian violence. But more than statements of support, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was seeking relief for some $67 billion in debt, much of which dates back 30 years or more, and includes compensation owed to Kuwait for Saddam Hussein's invasion of that country in 1991.

"We have come in order to demonstrate the various needs in Iraq, and we seek the support of the international community in our reconstruction efforts," he said.

But while most of the countries sent top-level diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were not present. Instead, Riyadh sent a junior minister of state for foreign affairs and Kuwait dispatched an under-secretary responsible for international organizations. More than half of Iraq's outstanding debt is owed to those two neighbors.

That figure has already been nearly halved from $120 billion through earlier debt forgiveness that has been supported by some 39 countries.

Iraq sits atop the world's third-largest oil reserves, and Maliki said he planned to double exports to help raise reconstruction funds. However, he offered no timetable for the increase.

Under existing agreements, Iraq is required to set aside five percent of its oil revenues as compensation payments, and the government says that that commitment will cost $3.5 billion this year.

The Iraqi prime minister also told the conference that his government would press ahead with plans to hold provincial elections in October, a schedule slightly at odds with a statement last week by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who said November was a more likely date.

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