80 Countries to Weigh Solutions for Struggling Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Representatives from 80 nations and various organizations will discuss ways to alleviate Iraq’s urgent financial, political and security woes as they gather here today for a conference.

The meeting, hosted by the United States and the European Union at Iraq’s request, is expected to focus on helping the nascent government in Baghdad survive and gain strength.

“The conference is an opportunity to build a new international partnership for Iraq,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters en route to the conference from the Middle East. She also referred to it as an agenda-setting effort and “a kind of conversation between the new Iraqi government and the international community about the way forward.”


Although she emphasized that the meeting in Brussels was not a donors conference, it has the earmarks of a prelude to one. In part, the meeting is a matchmaking exercise -- a chance for the Iraqis to present their political, economic and security agendas and for participating nations to decide how to help.

Rice will co-chair the session on security, and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is scheduled to co-chair a discussion of political issues.

There had been early speculation that the Iraqis would strike a deal for the cancellation of billions of dollars in foreign debt run up by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but Rice said Tuesday that was not likely to happen in Brussels.

“I’m sure we’ll have those conversations, but I don’t expect an outcome on that,” she said.

Rice made her comments after several hours of talks with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s biggest creditor.

Whatever happens, expectations are running high among Iraq’s newly elected politicians. They left Baghdad with hats in hand but chips on their shoulders, saying that rich European and Asian countries should give the new government respect as well as promised reconstruction aid.

“Countries all over the world used to support and aid Saddam Hussein instead of the Iraqi people, who were tortured and abused by the tyrant for more than 30 years,” said Hussein Sadr, a member of Iraq’s transitional National Assembly. “It’s time for them to aid the Iraqi people this time and not the tyrant who killed us.”

The conference’s U.S. and European hosts say the meeting is aimed at drawing the new government into the international fold while applying international pressure on the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to include Sunni Muslim Arabs and former Baath Party sympathizers in the political process.

American officials worry that political missteps by the Iraqi government, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds, could exacerbate the Sunni-led insurgency, which has hampered reconstruction efforts, cost thousands of lives and continues to target U.S. troops and Iraqi forces and civilians.

For the Bush administration, just the fact that the conference is taking place is significant. On one level, the meeting has imposed a certain discipline on the Iraqi government to address crucial near-term issues. In another sense, the gathering serves as a formal introduction into the community of nations for a government born of an internationally unpopular war.

As a consequence, Iraq has been less than a magnet for assistance. So far, little of the $13 billion pledged at a donors conference nearly two years ago has been delivered.

The White House also has been keen to show voters that countries other than the U.S. are pitching in to stabilize Iraq.

Few details about the conference were released in advance, but diplomats probably will discuss ways to seal Iraq’s porous borders and train its security forces. The nuts and bolts of reconstruction and aid will come up at a conference in Jordan scheduled for this summer, diplomats said.

Jafari and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari will lead the 44-member Iraqi delegation. All of Iraq’s neighbors -- including Iran and Syria, accused by the U.S. of aiding the insurgency -- will send delegations. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad rushed off to the conference after quickly having his credentials accepted by the transitional government Tuesday.

Most European and Muslim countries opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and, despite making occasional promises to help train, equip and fund Iraq’s government, have shied away from involvement in the country.

Among Arab nations, only Egypt has established full diplomatic ties with Iraq’s transitional government, voted into power Jan. 30. European and Arab diplomats say they’re reluctant to get involved in Iraq because of ongoing security woes, rampant corruption and the shaky legitimacy of the U.S.-backed leadership.

The transitional government’s struggle to provide basic services has exhausted the patience of many Iraqis. Nearly half of Baghdad’s residents have lived without running water amid scorching heat for several days because of a burst water main, the result of insurgent sabotage. Iraqis have electricity for about six hours a day.

“Iraqis must see improvement in their daily lives,” Khalilzad, a native of Afghanistan who served until recently as the U.S. ambassador there, said in a statement Tuesday.

“I look forward to sitting down with Iraqis to listen to their priorities and develop common approaches to improving economic conditions and the delivery of essential services by accelerating reconstruction and building a new prosperity in Iraq.”

Facing a growing insurgency last year, the U.S. diverted much of the money earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction to immediate security needs. Iraqis hope Europeans can make up the difference.

Officials in the transitional government are incensed that funds promised at previous conferences have yet to arrive or have been diverted to other countries.

Canada, for example, agreed to pitch in $250 million to train Iraqi police but eventually spent the money to build academies in Jordan and Egypt.

“There are very high expectations on the part of the Iraqis,” said Mohammed Askari, an analyst at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

Daragahi reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Brussels. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Caesar Ahmed and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad contributed to this report.