Is Iraq safe enough?

As violence threatens the planned elections, France and several Arab countries call for the U.S. coalition to set a pullout deadline.

Published November 23, 2004 3:20PM (EST)

Britain and the U.S. have fought off attempts by France, backed by some Arab countries, to use a special conference on Iraq Tuesday to draw up a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition troops. Twenty-seven foreign ministers gathered Monday night at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss ways of preventing the disintegration of Iraq and supporting the interim government of Ayad Allawi.

The conference members include Iraq's neighbors -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey -- as well as the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, the U.N., the E.U., the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The meeting was originally designed to encourage Iraq's neighbors to do more to bolster the country. But the communiqué to be published Tuesday evening is expected to offer little more than support for the general elections on Jan. 30, 2005.

All those present support elections, but Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League raised the possibility of delaying them to ensure the full participation of Sunni Arabs. "We would prefer inclusiveness by giving them more time rather than exclusiveness and on time," Hesham Youssef, a senior advisor to Arab League chief Amr Moussa, told Reuters.

The Jordanian foreign minister, Hani Mulki, said: "What's sacred in the democratic process is the full participation of all segments of the population. If the date comes and it was suitable and a good day for elections, that's fine. But the dates are not sacred. The process is the only sacred thing."

The Iraqi government said on the weekend that the elections would go ahead in January despite the violence and threats by the minority Sunnis to hold a boycott.

Countries such as France that opposed the invasion argue that the presence of U.S. and other international forces contributes toward the violence, and a timetable should be set for them to leave. Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, toured the region trying to secure support for a withdrawal deadline. But the U.S. opposes any such move.

The draft of the communiqué said it would be left to the Iraqi government when to ask the U.S. and other members of the coalition to withdraw. In reality, it will be a U.S. decision. As a sop to France and the Arab countries, the draft includes a sentence reminding the U.S. that its mandate is "not open-ended."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has timed his trip to Algeria and Spain to avoid being associated with a conference that he expects will not produce much.

Another contentious issue is the American call for Iran and Saudi Arabia to tighten their borders and prevent people from crossing the borders to join the fight against the coalition. Last month, Syria responded to U.S. pressure to prevent fighters from entering Iraq.

Thair al-Naqeeb, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, told the Associated Press: "We have documents and we have proof that indicates that some neighboring countries are contributing to increasing the violence in Iraq." Although the insurgents are predominantly Iraqis, Saudis have defied their government to join them.

By Ewen MacAskill

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