Leaders turn attention to Middle East peace process
Associated Press Writer
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) – The coming Palestinian elections provide an opportunity to revive the Middle East peace process, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday, adding that Israel is ready for such a step.
Annan spoke after talks on the peace process with Secretary of State Colin Powell and the top Russian and EU diplomats on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq.
The conference – which gathered 20 nations, both opponents and backers of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – issued a final statement giving significant support to Ayad Allawi, the prime minister installed by the United States, by backing a “resolute” crackdown on “terrorism” in Iraq.
But much of the focus was turned to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as Powell, Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana discussed the Jan. 9 elections for a Palestinian Authority president to replace the late Yasser Arafat.
Before coming to this Red Sea resort on Monday, Powell met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, assuring them that President Bush intends to advance the peace process in his second term. Israeli leaders, who boycotted Arafat, told Powell they would ease travel restrictions on Palestinians to facilitate voting.
“We are all encouraged,” Annan said after Tuesday’s meeting, adding the U.N. would provide election monitors.
“There is an opportunity to move ahead with the road map,” Annan said, referring to the peace plan sponsored by the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. “We believe the Israeli government is also ready.”
The host of the Iraq conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said the Israeli-Arab conflict was as much a threat to the region as the insurgency in Iraq.
“Efforts to achieve stability in Iraq cannot be separated from strenuous efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East,” Aboul Gheit said in an opening address.
The conference, which began Monday and ends Tuesday, brought together Iraq’s six neighbors – Iran, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – plus Egypt and other Arab countries, the United States, China and bodies such as the Group of Eight and the European Union.
The final statement suggested that even opponents of the U.S.-led war recognized the need to contribute to its reconstruction.
“It is a world duty to save Iraq from its tragic situation,” Aboul Gheit said.
The 20 nations attending the conference condemned “all acts of terrorism in Iraq,” as well as kidnappings and assassinations of foreign and Iraqi civilians, including aid workers, diplomats and journalists.
It urged Allawi’s government to deal “resolutely” with terrorism but to avoid excessive force and hurting civilians.
Some in the Arab world view the insurgency in Iraq as a legitimate resistance to U.S. occupation, and many Arabs have been angered by Iraqi deaths in fighting with U.S.-led forces.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari defended the U.S.-led forces in Iraq. “The contribution of the multinational force is essential to help secure necessary conditions for voting and to support our security forces in stabilizing the country,” he said.
Iran and Syria voiced criticism of the U.S.-led campaign against the insurgents. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said while his government condemns terrorism, “we cannot overemphasize the need to refrain from shelling civilians, destroying cities and killing innocent people.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi also criticized “the use of excessive force and bombing of towns.” But he also condemned the insurgent attacks and kidnappings, saying “such acts will help prolong the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.”
With the Iraqi government setting a Jan. 30 date for a crucial election, Zebari said his government was committed to holding “full, free and fair elections across the country for the first time in our history.”
The final communique urged the interim government to meet peaceful groups from across the political spectrum before the elections to encourage broad participation in the vote.
Bahrain told the conference it was willing to host a meeting of all Iraqi factions. Zebari told reporters his government had not yet considered the proposal.
“In principle, there is no objection. However, we believe that the best place to hold a reconciliation meeting is in the capital Baghdad,” Zebari said.
The conference has steered away from setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S.-led forces from Iraq – despite a push by France and some Arab countries. The final communique, though, does say the mandate of foreign forces is “not open-ended.”
The conference’s final statement called on Iraq’s neighbors to “intensify cooperation” to control their borders against the infiltration of would-be insurgents, a top demand of the Baghdad government. Allawi told The Associated Press on Monday that neighboring countries had not pulled their weight against the insurgency.
Powell told reporters he discussed the issue with his Syrian counterpart, and that Washington would provide Damascus with information that should be pursued.
“The Syrians have taken some steps recently, but we think there’s a lot more they can do,” Powell said.