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Islamic Foreign Ministers Meet to Discuss Iraq - 2004-06-14

The foreign Ministers of a 57-member bloc of Islamic nations began talks in Turkey's commercial capital, Istanbul, over the future of Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The foreign ministers will also elect a new secretary-general for the Saudi-based grouping, known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC.

Foreign ministers from nations ranging from Gabon in West Africa to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan are seeking to forge common views on the future of Iraq and on Palestinian demands for a homeland.

As the conference's host, Turkey - a key U.S. ally in the war against global terrorism - is expected to put its stamp on the three-day gathering by urging moderation and calling for greater democracy in the Islamic world.

The OIC foreign ministers are expected to call for a speedy transfer of full sovereignty to the Iraqi people and emphasize the need to preserve the territorial unity of Iraq.

Iran, Syrian and Turkey, which share borders with Iraq, have expressed deep concern over a feared break-up of Iraq into separate, Kurdish, Shia and Sunni entities should the Iraqis' experiment with democratic self-rule fail.

All three are especially worried that the emergence of a Kurdish state in Iraq could fan separatist sentiment among their own Kurdish minorities.

The conference is also likely to issue a sharp condemnation of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza strip and urge members to continue to boycott all Israeli goods.

Host nation Turkey has long been criticized by Arab nations for its strong military and economic ties with Israel. In recent weeks, however, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out against the policies of his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, accusing the Jewish state of engaging in terrorism against the Palestinians.

Such talk may help bolster Turkey's chances of getting its candidate elected as the next secretary general of the OIC. But OIC. officials say Ankara faces stiff opposition for the post from the other contenders, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

The OIC was established in 1967 with a mandate to restore Jersusalem as the capital of Palestine - a goal, analysts say, that remains as distant today as it did then, given the disunity within the Muslim world.