- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

STOCKHOLM - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraq’s leaders will press Sunni Arabs today to cancel billions of dollars in Iraqi debt and reopen embassies in the war-torn country, which they promised a year ago but have yet to deliver.

“With the improved security situation [on the ground], it ought to be possible to make more progress on some of the pledges that were made for project and technical assistance,” Miss Rice told reporters on her way to Stockholm.

As the world’s top diplomats gathered here for a major international conference on Iraq, European officials pointed out that Baghdad has not lived up to its part of the bargain, either - to ensure Sunni participation in the Shi’ite-dominated government.

“Key is, of course, that the Sunni parts of society move more clearly to the governing structures,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in an interview with the Associated Press.

As Mr. Bildt was speaking, Iraq’s largest Sunni political bloc said it had suspended talks to rejoin Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki’s Cabinet because of a dispute over ministry posts. The bloc pulled its members out of the government in August.

Mr. al-Maliki, who was met by Mr. Bildt upon arrival in the Swedish capital, tried to divert attention from the negotiating setback in Baghdad to the reluctance of Iraq’s Sunni neighbors to lend economic support.

“The aim of this conference is to support Iraq,” he told reporters before leaving Baghdad. “The task of building is more difficult than countering terrorism. We hope that other countries will forgive Iraqi debts.”

In a separate statement, Mr. al-Maliki’s office said he needs “support for Iraq’s sovereignty, debt cancellation and settlement of war reparations following the adventures of the former regime” of Saddam Hussein.

No numbers were mentioned, but published estimates put Iraq’s outstanding foreign debt at about $70 billion, most of which is owed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

In addition, Iraq still owes billions to Kuwait in United Nations-mandated reparations for Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait that led to the Persian Gulf War.

Mr. Bildt, however, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse that debt relief is “not the subject of this conference.”

The Stockholm gathering of about 100 countries and international organizations will review the commitments made at a meeting in Egypt last year setting up the so-called International Compact with Iraq.

Most of those pledges have not been fulfilled. In addition to balking at debt forgiveness, Sunni Arab states have failed to reopen embassies in Baghdad.

They have cited security concerns, but reluctance to appear friendly with a Shi’ite-led government has also played a role.

Miss Rice said yesterday that the security situation in Iraq is now “fundamentally different” from last year, implying that there should be no more excuses.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is also expected at the conference, but Mr. Bildt said there were no plans for him and Miss Rice to meet. But Mr. Bildt suggested that lower-level talks between the U.S. and Iranian delegations were possible.

“They are interested in talking to each other - I know that,” he said. “I think it is very important they talk to each other.”

U.S. and Iranian diplomats have met in Baghdad three times in the past year, but the discussions were strictly focused on the situation in Iraq, where Washington says Tehran is aiding foreign fighters who kill Americans.

Miss Rice has offered to meet with Mr. Mottaki on any issues, but only if Iran suspends enriching uranium, which the West suspects is meant to be used in building a nuclear weapon.

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