Global Policy Forum

Iraq Conference Calls for Full Voting

November 23, 2004

An international conference on the political future of Iraq has opened in Egypt with calls on the interim Iraqi government to make sure as many people as possible take part in January elections.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghait told the opening session in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Shaikh on Tuesday that Iraq's salvation lay in making the election successful and ensuring that all reasonable forces take part. "A consensus will not come about except by expanding the scope of dialogue between national forces, bridging the gap which divides the various parties and rejecting the politics of violence and intimidation," he said.

Aljazeera's Hussain Abd al-Ghani reported that the Egyptian Foreign Minister was determined to mention the necessity of withdrawing US-led forces from Iraq before December 2005. "He was trying to avoid leaving this issue in the hands of the Iraqi government so it would not be later extended," Abd al-Ghani said. "He was also determined to present the international community's worries over the non-participation of many main... Iraqi forces in the conference. He wants the Iraqi government to attract these forces, mainly the Sunnis."

Abd al-Ghani's words were echoed by UN Scretary-General Kofi Annan who told the conference: "As we approach the elections, every effort must be made to provide incentives for the various Iraqi groups to participate in a national reconciliation process". The conference brings together about 20 foreign ministers, some from the countries that invaded Iraq last year and others from governments that opposed the invasion.

Election boycott?

They say their aim is to help restore internal peace and security in Iraq, where Iraqi fighters are waging war on the government and the US and other troops that keep it in power. A statement prepared in advance advises the Iraqi government to call a meeting of as many political groups as possible before the elections to encourage full participation. Some Arab Sunni groups have threatened to boycott them because they oppose the US military presence and see the government as an American puppet.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier of France, one of the countries that most strongly opposed the invasion, said all Iraqis had to "feel a sense of ownership". "We are determined to make a success of the general elections. They must be held across the country, in all fairness and be open to all those components of Iraqi society which accept the rules of democracy," he added.

In weeks of negotiations over the final statement, France failed to persuade the United States, Britain and the Iraqi interim government to accept a firm date for a troop withdrawal. The text as it stands merely repeats the language of a UN resolution which, in effect, allows a future Iraqi government to invite US and British forces to stay indefinitely.

French initiative

Barnier returned to the theme on Tuesday, saying that for the sake of peace, Iraqis must know that the troops will go. He said the UN resolution, passed by the Security Council in June, means the mandate for the troops ends on 31 December 2005. "Hostility towards foreign troops leads many Iraqis to distance themselves from the process. It is therefore vital to recall this deadline and state clearly that Iraqis will have full mastery over their country's affairs, including over security and military issues," Barnier said.

But he also struck a conciliatory tone towards the United States and Britain, represented at the conference by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "We all know what positions our different countries held in the period that led to the current situation developing. But today we must turn to the future. France, and Europe, are ready to do so," he said. Another dispute was over whether unofficial Iraqis, including opponents of the government, could take part in the conference.


France said they should but Baghdad successfully blocked the French initiative. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Clerics in Baghdad, which controls hundreds of Sunni mosques in Iraq, said on Tuesday that the association had no confidence in the conference because it had ignored the French demands. "It has digressed from its most important announced goals," said the spokesman.

And Dr Dhafir al-Ani, an Iraqi political analyst based in Doha, told Aljazeera that there is a clash of political wills at the conference. "The main target of the United States and the Iraqi government in this conference is to add more legitimacy to the US occupation of Iraq and earn an external legitimacy for the Iraqi government which lacks an internal one," he said. "Many forces in Iraq have agreed that these elections cannot be held appropriately under the current unstable situation in the country. "The elections law itself does not give fair and equal chances for all parties. How can we join the ideas of occupation and democracy together?"

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