Iraq, neighbors fail to close gap

Published May 5, 2007

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - Iraq emerged from a vital conference Friday with a promise from Arab countries to stop foreign militants from joining Iraq's insurgency. But Baghdad didn't get the debt relief it wanted, and its Sunni Arab neighbors demanded that the Shiite-led government enact tough political reforms.

The two-day gathering of top diplomats from the region, the United States and around the world was the warmest yet between Iraq and Arab countries, but suspicions remained between the two sides.

"We will see the extent of the seriousness and commitment among these nations to what they signed today, " Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters. "If these promises are not kept, we will watch it, and there will be no reason to hold any further conferences."

Maliki's government has long pressed its neighbors to do more to stop fighters from infiltrating from their territory, and the Shiites who dominate his coalition accuse Arab countries of being biased toward Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

Arab governments, in turn, blame Shiite discrimination against Sunnis for fueling the insurgency and fear Shiite power will boost the power of mainly Shiite Iran in the region. The Arab governments demand that Maliki enact reforms to give Sunni Arabs a greater role - including amending the constitution, bringing more Sunnis into the military and government, and ending the purge of former members of Saddam Hussein's ousted Sunni-led Baath Party.

In a declaration released at the end of the conference Friday, both sides repeated promises to meet the demands of the other. The declaration called for all states to "prevent the use by terrorists of their territory" and bar their transit.

Iraq promised to "continue constructive steps" on reviewing the constitution and the program to exclude Baathists from key jobs.

But rifts remained. Notably, the foreign minister of regional Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia did not meet with Maliki, who held private talks with each of the other foreign ministers.

Ahead of the conference, Saudi King Abdullah also refused to meet Maliki during a regional tour by the Iraqi leader, underlining Saudi displeasure with the Iraqi government's closeness to Iran.

On Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stopped short of announcing the forgiveness of Iraq's debt as U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped. Instead, he told the conference Saudi Arabia was still negotiating with Iraq.

The kingdom, one of Iraq's biggest creditors, is owed between $15-billion and $18-billion. Iraq says its huge Hussein-era debt to various countries - amounting by some estimates to over $60-billion - is too big a burden when it is trying to rebuild.

But other top creditors - including Kuwait, Russia and China - also did not announce immediate debt relief.

Latest developments

Military action: U.S.-led forces on Friday arrested 16 suspected Shiite militants accused of smuggling powerful bomb components from Iran, the military said.

Deaths: The U.S. military announced the deaths of five American soldiers on Thursday and Friday - three of them in bombings. Also, a senior U.S. commander was wounded Thursday by small-arms fire in Baghdad. His name was not released.

Violence: Clashes between Shiite factions broke out in Baghdad and in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. Six injuries were reported. The clashes appeared to be part of an escalating power struggle among Shiites. At least 38 Iraqis were killed or found dead Friday, police said.

Protests: Hundreds of angry Shiites poured into the streets of Najaf and Basra to protest what they considered insults by Al-Jazeera television against Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Views of soldiers in Iraq

A new Pentagon survey of U.S. troops in Iraq focused on battlefield ethics. Here are the results, by the numbers:

40 percent of Marines would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.

55 percent of Army soldiers would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.

38 percent of Marines believe that noncombatants should be treated with dignity.

47 percent of soldiers believe that noncombatants should be treated with dignity.

40 percent of Marines and soldiers said torture should be allowed to save the lives of troops.