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Iraq Makes Direct Plea for Donors to Hurry Aid

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Donors funding Iraq's reconstruction have gathered in the Japanese capital - following up on the $13.5 billion of aid pledged in Madrid last year. The conference marks the first time Iraq's interim government is directly appealing for help.

Iraqi officials kicked off a two-day conference in Tokyo with an urgent plea to the world to make good on aid promised last year.

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told representatives from 55 nations that their help would be the key to destroying the causes of terrorism.

"Please do not delay. The time to make firm commitments is now. Honor your pledges now," he said.

Mr. Saleh singled out the United Nations for its lack of support, saying it is mandated to provide assistance and should not let down the Iraqi people. The United Nations has only a small staff in Iraq, because the poor security situation makes it difficult for them to work.

The deputy prime minister said he envisions Iraq eventually becoming a donor nation itself and by utilizing its oil assets could perhaps become "the Japan of the Middle East."

Few additional pledges are expected during the closed-door meetings, being held amid tight security at a Tokyo hotel. However, Iran did announce a new pledge of $10 million.

Host Japan, while not promising any new funds, announced three new infrastructure projects worth about 144 million dollars.

Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura called for the conference to take up issues beyond aid. He noted that it will be impossible for Iraq's economy to recover without political stability.

"It is necessary for both - economic recovery and political stability - to develop together in order to progress," he said. "I hope, therefore, that we can address the issue of political process in our discussions."

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the conference it is absolutely essential that elections are held in Iraq on schedule in January and that all parts of the country are included.

Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Armitage said the United States has recently moved to get more of its $18 billion pledge to Iraq.

"We took, I think, longer than was necessary to get our act together prior to turning over sovereignty and hence, June 28, when we turned over sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government, we had disbursed only $400 million," he said. "Today I was able to report to the conference that in the last three months we have been able to usefully and correctly push out the door about a billion more."

The United States recently diverted about $3.5 billion from infrastructure projects to training of Iraqi soldiers and police officers, to improve security. At the Tokyo conference, it is appealing to other countries to help fill the infrastructure gap.

Also looming over the conference is Iraq's foreign debt, estimated at more than $120 billion. Mr. Armitage says that without erasing most the debt there is no way Iraq can recover. He cautioned, however, that forgiving the debt is no guarantee of success either.