Iraq Seeks Foreign Debt Cancellation

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, second left, is welcomed by Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, right, after arriving at Arlanda Airport, Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday May 28, 2008. AP Photo/Scanpix Sweden/B. Ericson

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to push for debt relief and demand that some countries cancel debt and war compensation dating back to Saddam Hussein's regime when he addresses a U.N. conference in Sweden on Thursday.

Al-Maliki and several of his Cabinet ministers arrived in Stockholm amid tight security on the eve of the 500-delegate conference that will review the political and security progress in Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also will attend the meeting, which comes as the U.S. military says violence in Iraq has reached its lowest level in more than four years, following a series of crackdowns on Sunni and Shiite extremists.

"Iraq is demanding world countries to reopen embassies and to cancel debts," al-Maliki told reporters in Stockholm. Finance Minister Bayan Jabr said the demand was particularly aimed at Arab countries.

Iraq has at least $67 billion in foreign debt - most of it owed to fellow Arab countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

"The Bush Administration has downplayed the amount of debt relief it expects the conference to provide," according to CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk, who says the White House is focusing on contributions from Arab states, "particularly since the administration is facing opposition from the U.S. Congress because Iraq's government is reaping windfall profits from soaring oil prices."

"The hope in establishing the conference is as much to get the Sunni and the Shiite-majority nations together in the room as it is to make any tangible headway on Iraq's debt relief, which in and of itself will do little without reconciliation," Falk added.

Iraqi and U.S. officials attending the one-day meeting outside Stockholm are likely to tout recent security gains in Iraq. The gathering also will see pressure on Iraqi leaders to make similar movement on political goals, such as reconciliation among the country's Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.

Iraq's internal strife has brought global attention to the long-founded tension between the Sunni and Shiite powerhouse nations in the region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have majority Sunni populations and leadership, and have shown concern over the growing influence of Shiite Iran and Syria - both of which share borders with Iraq.

Rice, on her way to the conference Wednesday, acknowledged widespread skepticism about the improvement of conditions in Iraq but said the world must support the Iraqi government.

Despite those concerns, the Iraqi government should be rewarded for fulfilling pledges to boost security and enact political reforms, she said. Iraq, she said, was now a "fully functioning system" that should not be denied assistance from its friends and neighbors.

Still, officials said more progress was needed.

"Key is, of course, that the Sunni parts of society move more clearly to the governing structures," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political bloc pulled its members out of Iraq's 39-member Cabinet in August, saying it was not getting enough say in decision-making. Sunni politicians have been negotiating a possible return, but said Wednesday they suspended talks due to a dispute over ministry posts.

Iraq's Sunni Arab minority has long felt it is being sidelined by the majority Shiites and the Kurds, who dominate the Iraqi parliament and al-Maliki's government.

The conference also offers an opportunity for sideline meetings between delegates representing more than 90 countries.

Bildt said he did not expect any private talks between Rice and Mottaki, who ignored each other at a conference in Kuwait last month, but added that lower-level contacts were possible between their delegations.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey appeared to rule out that either Rice or her envoy to Iraq, U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, would reprise their sideline contacts with adversaries Iran or Syria.

"I'm unaware of any plans for any contacts of any kind between any U.S. officials and any officials of the government of Syria or Iran, other than incidental passing-in-the-hallway kinds of stuff," he said.

The conference is the first annual review of the International Compact with Iraq, a sweeping five-year economic and political reform package that Ban helped broker last May in Egypt.

The compact defined international help for Iraq - including debt relief - but also set tough commitments on the Baghdad government, particularly carrying out reforms aimed at giving Sunni Arabs a greater role in the political process.

No breakthroughs were expected at the conference. Bildt said he hopes Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would show support for Iraq's government, for example by opening embassies in Baghdad.

"That way they have a presence and can support the reconciliation process and the political process," Bildt told Swedish news agency TT.

Iraqi refugees living in Sweden urged Iraqi officials not to downplay the violence in their homeland.

"It would be very negative for us if they do not tell the truth about the dangerous situation in Iraq," said Yousif Janan, 24, an Iraqi living in Sodertalje, south of Stockholm. The city is home to more than 6,000 Iraqis and has been nicknamed "Little Baghdad."

Sweden has admitted about 40,000 Iraqis since 2003 - far more than any Western country - but recently tightened its immigration rules.

Police said at least eight different demonstrations were planned in the Stockholm area, including an anti-U.S. rally outside the conference center in Upplands Vasby, about 15 miles north of the capital. Officers from seven counties, the SAPO security police and a national anti-terror unit will be deployed during the conference.
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