AFP: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will begin a regional tour on Sunday to drum up support for next month’s international conference in Egypt aimed at quelling the raging bloodshed in Iraq. by Jay Deshmukh
BAGHDAD, April 21, 2007 (AFP) – Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will begin a regional tour on Sunday to drum up support for next month’s international conference in Egypt aimed at quelling the raging bloodshed in Iraq.
His tour comes to the backdrop of a warning by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Iraqi leaders that they need to work faster to reconcile their rival factions as American support cannot be taken for granted for ever.
On Saturday, eight people were killed in Iraq, including a town mayor and four members of a Kurdish Shiite family from the northern oil hub of Kirkuk.
Gunmen killed the family, beheading their eight-year-old girl, police Captain Mohammed Ibrahim said, suggesting a sectarian motive.
Mahdi Abdul Hussain, the mayor of Musayyib, a town south of Baghdad, was killed in a roadside bomb along with his bodyguard, said police Lieutenant Hathim al-Hadiri.
Maliki will leave for Cairo on Sunday and is expected to travel on to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other regional states for preparatory talks ahead of the May 3-4 meeting, Iraqi officials told AFP.
The ministerial meeting, a follow-up to an ambassadors’ conference last month in Baghdad, will be attended by Iraq’s neighbours and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Japan, Canada and Germany.
“Egypt will be his first stopover where he will hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak, before moving to Kuwait and other countries in the region,” an official at Maliki’s office said on condition of anonymity.
In Cairo, the state news agency Mena added that Maliki would also meet with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Nazif.
Mahmud Othman, a Kurdish MP close to the government, said Maliki is also expected to visit Saudi Arabia during his tour.
“The prime agenda for his trip is to discuss the preparations for the meeting,” he said.
Neither official could say whether Maliki will visit Iran, which has still not confirmed its attendance at the Egypt meeting amid a dispute over five Iranian officials held prisoner by US forces in Iraq.
If Iran were to attend the high-profile gathering at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, its officials would sit at the same table as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who has already confirmed she will be there.
“Iran has demanded that at least three of the five Iranians detained by US forces in Iraq must be released before the Egypt conference,” Othman told AFP, referring to the Iranians seized on January 11 in the northern city of Arbil.
“This has almost become a condition for them to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting,” he said, adding that US authorities may free them given the implications of the meeting.
The US military said on Saturday “there is no change to the status of their detention right now.”
Othman said Baghdad was urging Tehran to attend the conference as Shiite Iran’s support is seen vital in stabilising violence-wracked Iraq.
Washington accuses Tehran of funding and training militant groups to fight its forces in Iraq, and alleges that the detained Iranians are “intelligence officers” suspected of aiding the anti-American insurgency.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Saturday that Iran will make its position clear next week, complaining that the conference risks weakening the positions of Iraq’s neighbours.
“The definition of the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting weakens Iraq’s neighbours,” Mottaki told the Kayhan daily. “Some decisions have been made over which no consultations have been carried out first.”
The conference aims to create a framework within which world powers and Iraq’s neighbours can help Baghdad end the brutal sectarian conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people since last year.
To quell the bloodshed, most of which is focussed in Baghdad, about 80,000 US, Iraq troops are patrolling the capital’s mean streets as part of the new security plan.
On Friday, Gates warned Maliki that American troops will not do so indefinitely.
“Our commitment to Iraq … is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraqi streets open-endedly,” he said, adding that it was a strategy to give Maliki “time for progress for justice and reconciliation.”
But Maliki told visiting Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson on Saturday that the plan was progressing.
“The security plan currently in action is going in the right direction despite the challenges,” he told Nelson, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad.
Nelson also pledged Australia’s “full support” for the Iraqi government, particularly in developing the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, a statement from Maliki’s office said.
Australia has around 1,400 troops in Iraq, of which 550 are combat troops and largely deployed in the south alongside British forces.
The deaths of one more US and a Polish soldier in Iraq were also announced Saturday.