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Powell Backs Idea of International Conference on Iraq - 2004-09-29

Secretary of State Colin Powell says he supports, and is ready to take part in, an international conference aimed at bolstering Iraq's electoral process and securing its borders in advance of elections to be held by the end of January. Mr. Powell discussed that issue and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in talks Wednesday with the foreign ministers of Jordan and Tunisia.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other members of the interim government in Baghdad have been pressing for the conference in talks at the United Nations and in visits to neighboring countries.

At a joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, Secretary Powell stressed his support for the proposed meeting, which would be aimed at lending legitimacy to the Iraqi election process and securing agreement barring outside interference by neighboring states.

"It would be a conference held in the region with all of Iraq's neighbors, the G-8 and representatives of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference and perhaps some others," he said. "Dates are being examined now and Prime Minister Allawi and Foreign Minister [Hoshyar] Zubari are out working this right now. And so I hope this conference will be held in the not-too-distant future, but the specific date, I'll wait for the Iraqi interim government to announce after arrangements have been made. And I look forward to personally participating in the conference."

U.S. officials say privately they expect the conference to be held in late-November, probably in Cairo. Mr. Powell told reporters that the future of the U.S-led military presence in Iraq, after the country has elections and a constitution, would be a "perfectly appropriate" issue to raise at the conference. He said French Foreign Minister Michel Bernier had been misinterpreted in news reports suggesting that he was making consideration of a U.S. withdrawal a condition for France attending the gathering.

For his part, Foreign Minister Muasher down-played suggestions of a rift between his government and Washington after interview comments by Jordan's King Abdullah this week that it would be "impossible" to organize fair elections in Iraq given the current state of chaos there.

"There is no difference whatsoever between our position and that of the U.S. administration," he noted. "We both agree that security is very important and we're both working with the Iraqi interim government to be able to help them provide that security. We both agree that elections should be held all over Iraq, so that every Iraqi can participate in the election process, and we expressed our hope that the elections will be held on time and that conditions would be conducive for that."

Mr. Powell also covered Iraq and other regional issues with Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia.

In an interview with the pan-Arab TV channel al-Jazeera, the secretary made clear he is ready to discuss Iraqi security with his Iranian counterpart or other officials should they attend the planned conference.

"If the Iranians are in the meeting and wish to talk in a responsible manner about this problem," Mr. Powell added, "I will be in the room, too."

In the al-Jazeera interview, the secretary also said it is time for Palestinians to end their five-year-long armed uprising against Israel, the Intifada, which he said has achieved nothing for the Palestinian people.

He said President Bush "desperately" wants to help create a Palestinian state that will live side-by-side in peace with Israel, but that this can come only when terrorism spawned by the Intifada has ended.