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Special World Economic Forum Meeting to Focus on Mideast - 2003-06-20

Business, political and social leaders will be meeting on the shores of the Dead Sea starting Saturday to discuss, among other things, the reconstruction of Iraq.

The World Economic Forum is convening the special meeting as Iraq and the rest of the Middle East region are trying to recover from war, while dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Critics say the World Economic Forum meetings are nothing but talk shops, where little substantive work gets done. But Forum leaders hope they can help re-invigorate the economic sector in the Middle East.

In addition to rebuilding Iraq, hundreds of powerful delegates at the meeting will also discuss the future of the Middle East and business and economics in the Arab world. On the sidelines will be a meeting of the so-called Quartet, dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Quartet consists of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will attend, as will Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Jordan was chosen as the venue for the meeting because the Forum considers it "a regional leader in political and social reforms," as well as one of the few Middle East countries to have a peace treaty with Israel.

Jordanian Planning Minister Bassem Awadallah says that, in addition to focusing on regional issues, such as Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jordanian government hopes to use the meeting as a showcase for its own democratic transition.

"We would like to make sure that this model of reform is going to be contagious elsewhere in this region," he said. "And we would like the international community, both the political and economic representatives of the international community, to really know the Middle East for what it is, for the dynamic kind of civil society that we would like to bring about in terms of meeting the challenges of this 21st century."

The World Economic Forum has been meeting annually in Davos, Switzerland, since 1970. Only one other annual general meeting has been held outside Davos, when the group met in New York in a show of solidarity after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

While so many of the world's political and business leaders are here to discuss the economic future of Iraq, the human rights group Amnesty International is trying to make sure they do not forget about the humanitarian situation in the country.

Amnesty has launched a new report on the eve of the forum, urging respect for human rights during the rebuilding of Iraq.

"The main purpose of this report is to refocus the discussion on human rights," said Abdel Salam Sidahmed, the deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East program. "That is to say, human rights should be paramount in any process, in any reconstruction process and any discussion about reconstruction."

Mr. Sidahmed says Amnesty's concerns involve human rights violations that took place under the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, as well as concerns about how well the current coalition-led transitional administration in Iraq is complying with the Geneva Convention.

He says Amnesty International wants to remind the assembled leaders that people should be at the center of any strategy to rebuild Iraq.