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Europe

Iraq Seeks Support at Brussels Conference

More than 80 foreign ministers and officials began gathering in Brussels ahead of a conference Wednesday aimed at showing solidarity with violence-wracked Iraq and to hear Baghdad's plans for rebuilding it.

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Multinational forces are still trying to restore stability

Iraqi officials arrived in Brussels Tuesday hoping to lay out their plans for the country's democratic development and convince the US, the EU and others to pony up the support they have promised.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, part of a 30-strong delegation headed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, hopes the talks will support his government as it drafts a new constitution and prepares for elections later this year, reported AFP.

"The main goal of this conference is to re-engage the international community in stabilizing and building Iraq," he said.

While organizers admitted the Brussels talks may be short on major new initiatives, they played up the symbolism of a meeting co-hosted by the EU and the United States, whose ties were deeply strained by the 2003 Iraq war.

Sprengstoffanschlag im Irak - Kirkuk

Violence is still a daily reality in Iraq.

"The international consensus that has long eluded us on Iraq is now in place," said European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, as reported by AFP.

The situation in Iraq is critical

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to join ministers, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors, notably Iran and Syria, the G8, NATO and the Arab League.

The talks come at a delicate time for Iraq, where deadly attacks have surged despite the election of an interim government, and where over 130,000 US soldiers remain stationed with no timetable for withdrawal.

"The situation in Iraq is critical," an Iraqi diplomat told AFP. "We need the help of the international community to support the transitional government."

US President George W. Bush hailed the fact that the EU was co-hosting the talks when he met EU leaders in Washington Monday.

"It's an important signal for people to hear loud and clear that there may have been past differences over Iraq, but as we move forward there is a need for the world to work together," he said at the White House.

Iraq wants political and financial support

On the economic front, Iraq wants donor countries to fulfil their commitments, said Zebari. Baghdad has complained about delays in delivery on pledges already made, including $18 billion (about 15 billion euros) from the United States.

Debt relief has been billed as a key agenda item but there was no indication whether new offers were in the pipeline beyond the $32 billion package announced by the Paris Club of creditor nations in November, which wrote off more than 80 percent of Iraq's debt. Nations outside of the Paris Club - owed about $70 billion, are going to be asked to cancel Iraqi debt also.

Condoleezza Rice in Luxemburg Javier Solana

Javier Solana is pleased about international consensus

Iraqi officials will present their plans for drafting a new constitution and ensuring input and inclusion of all parts of society. Iraq also hopes that the Brussels conference will provide support to reform its criminal justice system, which is in serious need of strengthening if it wants to succeed in getting the continuing unrest under control more than two years after former dictator Saddam Hussein's ouster.

On this front the EU is set to launch an unprecedented initiative next month by training some 800 Iraq judges, senior officials and police officers. The instruction will take place outside of Iraq itself.

No concrete action likely

For the Europeans, the conference will mark another step in restoring transatlantic cooperation severely strained by the Iraq crisis.

An EU diplomat denied that the conference was purely symbolic, but also downplayed prospects of dramatic concrete action -- that will be more likely during a donors' conference scheduled in mid-July in Amman.

"I don't think you have to look for new initiatives (at the Brussels conference)," she told AFP. "It is more about reaffirming principles."

US ambassador Richard Jones, the US State Department's coordinator on Iraq, said the talks would focus on planning for Iraq's future, as well as demonstrating unity after the strains of the past.

"It's a very good opportunity for Iraq to put its case to the international community, and in turn it's a good opportunity for the international community to show that it's united," he told AFP.

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