- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The United Nations’ new point man on Iraq reconstruction said Iraqi hopes are soaring over a planned international conference next month on the country’s beleaguered economy, putting pressure on neighboring Arab governments to offer up real debt relief and other concessions.

“It would be a real slap in the face” if the May 3 gathering at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el Sheik failed to produce concrete offers, Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. undersecretary-general overseeing the Iraq-reconstruction program, said in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Times.

“It could undermine the vision of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki and his government to take the steps needed to restore Iraq’s economy,” the veteran Nigerian diplomat added.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh warned on a Washington visit yesterday that Iran is ready to expand its clout inside Iraq if Arab rivals like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait fail to support Iraq’s economic recovery.

“If the Arab countries do not step up, Iran’s influence in Iraq will grow,” Mr. al-Dabbagh said.

The May 3 meeting on the U.N.-backed “International Compact on Iraq” will be followed, the next day, by a second conference of Iraq, its Middle East neighbors, the United States and other world powers on Iraq’s security situation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend the Sharm el Sheik gathering, along with senior ministers from Iran and Syria.

Mr. Gambari said the compact is a five-year reconstruction plan started last month jointly by the United Nations and the al-Maliki government.

Under the plan, Iraq would agree to undertake a series of economic and political reforms in exchange for international investment and financial concessions.

Mr. al-Dabbagh said that, despite Iraq’s vast oil and gas reserves, the country faces a five-year “bottleneck” trying to jump-start the economy and reform social and legal services while dealing with an increasingly violent insurgency.

Iraq’s foreign debt stood at about $120 billion when Saddam Hussein’s government fell in 2003. The United States forgave some $4.1 billion in Iraqi debt in late 2004, and the “Paris Club” of wealthy creditor nations pledged a major debt-forgiveness program.

But despite a debt-relief drive led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Iraq’s Arab neighbors have been far less forthcoming.

Saudi Arabia still holds an estimated $28 billion in public and private debt, and Kuwait’s parliament has balked at concessions on tens of billions of dollars in debt and reparations still owed from Iraq’s invasion in 1991.

Mr. Gambari acknowledged the security situation in Iraq makes long-term economic planning and investment difficult. He also acknowledged that Iraq’s Arab neighbors have been slow to support the al-Maliki government, which relies heavily on Shi’ite parties with extensive ties to Iran.

But he said he found a “significant buy-in” from all the leading Iraqi factions for the reform program in the compact, including backing from leading Sunni politicians otherwise opposed to the al-Maliki government.

“We cannot wait until all is perfect in Iraq if we are to move ahead,” he said.

The compact, which Mr. Gambari said is a top priority of new U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is one of the highest-profile U.N. efforts to date in Iraq. The world body was badly divided by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and pulled out much of its top personnel after an August 2003 bombing that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and other senior U.N. officials.

But Mr. Gambari said the United Nations has quietly expanded its presence in postwar Iraq, helping organize the country’s three nationwide elections since 2005 and overseeing the debate over revising the country’s constitution.

“Our profile in Iraq is more about quality than quantity, although we are now the single biggest foreign presence after the multinational military force,” he said.

Mr. Gambari said U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi, finishing up a three-year tour in Baghdad, has been able to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shi’ite spiritual leader in Iraq who has consistently refused to deal with U.S. authorities.

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