11/22/2004, 00.00
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The world comes together over Iraq

International conference begins. Elections and security are top on the agenda.

Sharm el-Sheikh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A two day conference on Iraq began today in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt) involving the world's main diplomatic players. Meantime, Iraqi authorities scheduled elections to the new National Assembly for January 30, 2005. The new parliament will choose the country's next government and draft its new constitution.

Originally scheduled for January 27, the elections are backed by Iraq's Shiite majority which opposes any further delays. Many Iraqi Sunnis are instead pushing for a new date and threaten to boycott the ballot.

A draft of the final declaration has been making the rounds of the world's capitals in the days leading up to the conference. Its main points include the official recognition of the Allawi government, a call for a renewed UN involvement and for Iraqis to play a greater role, a condemnation of terrorism and a demand that Iraq's neighbours (unnamed but principally Iran and Syria) stop interfering in the pacification process and better control their border to stop infiltration by terrorists. The draft also calls on the US and the Allawi government to restrain the use of force.

Egypt is organising the conference following Iraq's request. The conference brings together Iraq's neighbours, the G8 countries, China, the Arab League and its three-country group (Tunisia, Algeria, Bahrain) in charged of the Iraq question, the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

The conference's main focus will be the January 30 elections. They represent the next major step in the process that began on June 30, 204, when the US Civil Administration handed power over to Iraq's transitional government under Prime Minister Allawi.

Thus far, Baghdad has received € 35 million (US$ 45 million) to organise the elections and is calling on the international community to help in guaranteeing the security during the process.

The draft of the final declaration is being worked out in negotiations between France, Germany, Russia and China. The main issues are the role of the UN and the withdrawal of US troops. The document stresses the importance of the UN's role in Iraq and underlines the fact that the mandate of the international force is not "unlimited". France failed however to secure a place for armed opposition groups which have been responsible for violence and attacks in recent months, groups such as Moqtada al-Sadr's movement.

Rebel groups will also be excluded from any future negotiations, but representatives from civil society will be invited to "share" in the results of the Sharm el-Sheik summit.

World leaders also decided to cancel 80 per cent of Iraq's foreign debt overcoming Russia's last reservations. Initially, France, Germany and Russia had refused to go beyond 50 per cent whilst the US was pushing for a 95 per cent write-off.

According to Hans Eichel, Germany's Finance Minister, 30 per cent of the debt will be written off immediately. Another 30 per cent will be cut on the basis of a plan worked out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The remaining 20 per cent will depend on the success of the IMF's plan.

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