New York Times
November 24, 2004
SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt, Nov. 23 - American and Iraqi officials joined Iraq's Middle Eastern neighbors and the world's largest powers on Tuesday to call for international support for Iraq's transition to democracy starting with elections in January, in an attempt to quiet often bitter wrangling prompted by the American-led invasion.
An eight-page communiqué issued at the conclusion of a two-day conference at this Red Sea resort also expressed concern both about attacks by insurgents and about Iraqis dying in the "excessive use of force" by American-led military assaults.
Many participants said on the sidelines that they had grave concerns about the rising tide of Iraqi violence, and about whether the elections could safely proceed on time.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, faced tough questions from the Arab news media and other delegations about the American assaults on Falluja and elsewhere, including attacks on mosques.
"We understand the sacred place in the life of Islam that mosques occupy," Mr. Powell said Tuesday. But he added that "our commanders are extremely sensitive to anything that would violate that concept" and that the insurgents had turned many Iraqi mosques into arms depots and sanctuaries for terrorists.
Mr. Zebari acknowledged that Muslims everywhere were unhappy, but said that the Iraqi government "doesn't have any interest in killing civilians." American and Iraqi military operations "are against the groups that use violence and threaten the authority of the Iraqi government," he said.
Some of the toughest language against the American occupation came in statements from the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.
"What the Iraqi people may stand to gain from this meeting will in no way alter that calamitous road they were forced to take," he said, going on to call for a strict timetable for an end to what he described as a harsh occupation.
France, often at loggerheads with Washington over Iraq, also stressed the need for establishing some kind of horizon for the end of an American presence. Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, said the message of the conference was that only the political process could solve Iraq's problems.
Still, participants, who represented 20 nations, including China, Russia, France and Britain, as well as the heads of four major regional or international organizations, emphasized that many countries with often sharp differences over Iraq had managed to sit around one table and hammer out a rough consensus.
"It reassures Iraqis in Iraq that it is not only the neighboring countries that are concerned about their security, but the entire world," said Hani Mulki, the Jordanian foreign minister. "Plus there will be no support from Arab or neighboring countries for violent operations. The message is clear that the elections and ballot boxes are the only solution to the crisis of security in Iraq."
In his opening remarks, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, linked the conflict in Iraq to the struggle between the Palestinians and Israel, saying both problems needed to be solved to ensure regional stability. Mr. Powell met with many envoys on the sidelines about the issue of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Perhaps the most excitement generated by the conference came when Mr. Powell was seated next to Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian foreign minister, at a dinner on Monday night. Both sides maintained that they had stuck to polite diplomatic chitchat, discussing subjects like reconstruction after the earthquake last December in Bam, Iran, while avoiding sensitive topics like the disagreement over Iran's nuclear program.
When Mr. Powell was asked Tuesday whether Iran and the United States might ever establish relations, he said, "In due course, it might turn out to be the case." But he added that relations could not improve as long as Iran's conduct was "inconsistent with their obligations with respect to terrorism, support of organizations such as Hezbollah and their nuclear programs."
Concern about the recent American and Iraqi offensives in Falluja and other towns was sounded throughout the conference. On Tuesday, Mr. Aboul Gheit acknowledged that the issue had roiled the meeting.
"There hasn't been a kind of full agreement on how to tackle that situation," he said. "However, references to the need to respect international humanitarian law, the need for the nonuse of excessive force, the necessity to respect human rights and also to refrain from inflicting whatever collateral damage on civilians were pressed and pressed very strongly by delegations."
Despite unease among the delegates that the Iraqi elections are in jeopardy - and private concern expressed even by American and Iraqi officials - there was widespread support expressed for the process. Mr. Powell said no delegate suggested to him that the elections be postponed.
The gathering's final communiqué basically supported the idea of Iraq's proceeding with its political transition as outlined in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546, passed last June. The Tuesday decree called on the United Nations to play a leading role in the political process, and it pressed the Iraqis to widen the participation in the political process to quell the insurgency.
Several states supported a proposal by Bahrain to hold a conference of all of Iraq's political forces before the elections. Mr. Zebari was dismissive, saying such a conference, if needed, should be held in Baghdad.
As for the overall ability of the conference to help Iraq, analysts in the Middle East said it might help, particularly because so many countries that had opposed the invasion had participated in the gathering.
"One of the major problems with the American project in Iraq is that it is illegitimate, there was no consensus at the U.N., no consensus at the Security Council, no consensus among regional countries," said Abdel Moneim Said, director of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "This conference is offering an international and regional legitimacy that the Iraqis can go with."
In addition, he said, having heavyweight Sunni Muslim countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey signing on sent a message to Sunnis in Iraq that they should join the political process. "It will tell the Sunnis in Iraq that you are not going to be crushed and not going to be an oppressed minority in the future of Iraq," he said.
Elsewhere in the region, however, there were more pessimistic voices about the gathering. "Sharm el Sheik is only a stage in Iraq's long, troublesome and crisis-ridden path," the conservative Iranian daily Hamshahri said in an editorial. "The destiny of Iraq will be determined in Falluja and Najaf, not in Sharm el Sheik."
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting for this article.