The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Iraq Conference in Egypt

It's 1 am so I'm not sure this post will be too coherent. I'm covering the conference on Iraq in the Red Coast town of Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. The conference is being attended by all of Iraq's neighbors (Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey) as well as by the US, France, Germany, the UK, the Arab League, the UN, the EU and many more. The aim of the conference is a little vague (more on that later) but in general it's a show of support for the upcoming elections, for the interim government, and for the future stability of the country.

Today there was the meeting between Iraq and neighboring countries. As of writing this, I know nothing about it from the participants themselves, as they gave no comment on entering or exiting, the talks were not televised, and there was no press conference. There was massive security and journalists were kept miles away. The Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the discussion had focused on elections and security, and that was that. Typical Middle Eastern lack of transparency perhaps. But there may be a further reason that everyone was so tight-lipped. I talked to a high-ranking Iraqi official in Baghdad tonight, and he told me the Iraqi delegation was planning on presenting evidence at the meeting of the "interference" of other countries in its affairs--of how they (he wouldn't name names, but we are talking Iran and Syria at least obviously) have directly funded and supported terrorist groups in Iraq and how they are home to a great number of rich and disgruntled Baathist elite with links to the insurgency. Oh to have have a fly on the wall at these talks..

In general covering this sort of event is exhausting and really frustrating. A lot of the press spends a lot of its time staking out hotel lobbies (the delegations are spread out over many of the luxurious summer resort hotels here) and hounding passing officials into giving snippets of comment. There was a really funny scene today when the Syrian Foreign Minister became the center of a camera scrum but refused to talk. His handlers on all sides tried to hustle him along, but they took him the opposite way of where he needed to go, and he and his entourage ended up bounding around the courtyard of a hotel like a ping-pong for a while, journalists in hot pursuit. At one point he even accidentally ended up on a dead-end raised catwalk--we all thought he was going to make a statement, but he was just lost. Finally they piled into the obligatory go-cart and took off.

The Iraqi officials were really busy of course and hard to get ahold of but I have to say that they are the most engaging to talk to, in general. They actually say things. The Iraqi deputy foreign minister denied that any civilians had died in Fallujah. He also said the new January 30 election date is realistic, and that Iraqis will participate "because this will determine the future of the country." And he claimed Kuwait had agree to forgive Iraq 80% of its debt (just like the Paris Club just did). That would be a lot of money, and would put pressure on Saudi Arabia to do so as well, but I was unable to get Kuwaiti officials to confirm this.

Other than the interesting confrontation between Iraq and its neighbors, there are of course the well-established tension between France and the US. France (and other countries) would like there to be a set withdrawal date for US troops. The US doesn't want to make that commitment. More on this tomorrow after press conferences from Bernier and Powell.

In general, as I started out saying, it's unclear what practical steps or actions are going to come out of this to aid Iraq. They''ll issue a nice statement at the end, but then what? The underlying problem--that European countries are unwilling to send forces to help with the aftermath of a war they opposed, and Arab countries are afraid a stable Iraq will be a base for further US military interventions in the region--haven't gone away.