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Jan. 30 elections endorsed at first international meeting on Iraq

SHARM el SHEIK, Egypt—Arab and European countries on Tuesday urged Iraq and the United States to strive for the broadest possible participation in Iraqi elections set for Jan. 30, and warned against U.S. military actions that they said are alienating Iraqis.

At the first international meeting on Iraq since the March 2003 U.S. invasion, there were plentiful calls for healing the deep global divisions over President Bush's policies there. But the conference at this Red Sea resort also revealed continuing differences over recent military offensives in Fallujah and other cities and the timeline for a U.S. military withdrawal. Several nations suggested privately that the Iraqi elections might have to be delayed because of daily violence and instability.

In the end, a statement approved by 22 countries and four international organizations papered over many differences and endorsed the end-of-January deadline for elections to form a transitional Iraqi legislature in Baghdad.

The participants pledged to help support Iraq's uncertain transition to democracy and to halt the flow of arms, men and money across Iraq's borders that is fueling the insurgency.

They condemned the insurgency, but also warned that the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq "is not open-ended." France had pushed unsuccessfully for a firm deadline to withdraw U.S. troops.

The conference saw a rare diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran—Iraq's most populous neighbor. The two have no diplomatic ties.

At a dinner late Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell sat next to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. The Bush administration accuses Iran of covertly developing nuclear weapons, sponsoring terrorism and trying to extend its influence in Iraq.

Powell told ABC News that the encounter was apparently arranged by his Egyptian hosts and that his interaction with Kharrazi was confined to "polite dinner conversation."

U.S. troops, supporting the interim Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, are trying to crush a widespread insurgency dominated by disenfranchised Sunni Arabs, who held favored positions under Saddam Hussein.

Reflecting fears that the offensive is further alienating Sunnis and others, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the elections would succeed only if more Iraqis are brought into the political process.

"This necessitates bringing closer different opinions (and) abandoning the policy of excessive violence, which has never led, and never will, to anything but more dissension, division, devastation and destruction," Gheit said.

The conference urged Allawi's government to hold a meeting of Iraqi groups and factions to expand national reconciliation before the elections.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan echoed Gheit.

"Nobody can expect them to give in to terror," Annan said of the Iraqi authorities. "However, they may wish to weigh the broader impact on the transition process of the actions they take."

U.S. and Iraqi officials say they had no choice but to invade Fallujah in an offensive that has spread to other areas because insurgents had taken over the city as a base for terrorist operations and refused to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal.

But images of U.S. troops around mosques and video footage of a Marine apparently killing an injured Iraqi have been played over and over on Arab television, prompting anger and outrage.

Powell told an Arab reporter that "the cause of the problem in the mosques is not the actions of the coalition or the Iraqi security forces." In Fallujah alone, he said, insurgents used 60 mosques as weapons depots.

Gheit acknowledged that "a number of" countries raised concerns over the U.S. offensive, but added, "the issue was left without decisive conclusion."

The need for U.S. and Iraqi forces to avoid collateral damage to civilians and abide by international humanitarian law was "pressed, and pressed very strongly" by others, he said.

The final statement said that Allawi's government should "deal resolutely" with the insurgency. But it also called "on all parties to avoid excessive use of force and to exercise maximum self-restraint to avoid violence inflicted on civilians."

Many analysts are worried that if few Sunnis run for office and vote, the government will be dominated by Iraq's majority Shiites, and perhaps lead to full-scale civil war.

On the 138,000 U.S. and other foreign coalition troops in Iraq, the group simply reiterated a U.N. Security Council agreement to review their mandate in December 2005. The Iraqi government can ask them to leave at any time.

Powell met separately with Foreign Minister Farouk Shara of Syria, which the United States says allows insurgents and weapons to cross its borders into Iraq.

"We discussed that rather directly," Powell said. The Syrians have taken some steps to stop the flow "but we think there's a lot more they can do."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.