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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leaders Gather to Rally Help for Iraq

BRUSSELS -- The United States and the European Union joined forces on Wednesday to rally world help for Iraq, urging Baghdad to ensure minority Sunnis play a full role in its future.

Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, mostly boycotted Jan. 30 elections and form the core of an insurgency. The Shiite Muslim majority and Kurds dominate the transitional government in Baghdad.

"Iraqis must find it within themselves to reach out to one another and address issues on which they may differ," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his opening speech to a meeting attended by representatives of some 80 nations.

"Without an inclusive process, security initiatives are unlikely to yield enduring results," Annan added, echoing political analysts who say including more Sunni Arabs in decision-making could help defuse the insurgency.

The Shiite-led panel charged with drafting a constitution for Iraq by Aug. 15 agreed last week to raise Sunni numbers in the body, but U.S. and EU officials will press Iraqi officials at the conference for further reassurances on the Sunni role.

"The brave people of Iraq are asking us to stand with them -- and they deserve our full support," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the conference.

"Iraq in turn has obligations of its own," she said. "To maximize the financial benefits of assistance, the new Iraqi government must continue to improve security, liberalize its economy and open political space for all members of Iraqi society who reject violence."

She said Syria, in particular, must secure its border to prevent its use by insurgents, and urged donors to keep their promises on aid to Baghdad.

"All countries must deliver the material support they have already pledged to the government of Iraq," she said.

The conference, a result of U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Europe in February to mend fences two years after the Iraq war, will also urge Baghdad to keep to its timetable to hold fresh elections by the end of the year, officials say.

The meeting will steer clear of lingering trans-Atlantic sensitivities over the U.S.-led war, such as the continued refusal of France and Germany and other anti-war countries to offer troops, and is not intended as a donor conference.

Instead it will offer a show of world support for Iraq and give Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari a platform to pitch for specific help in reconstruction and reform.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the meeting would show that "the international community, having been deeply divided during the course of and before the military action, has now come together actively to support the building of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Iraq."

Yet the insurgency clearly remains a major obstacle to the foreign investment needed to rebuild Iraq and to help overcome a postwar unemployment rate put at over 50 percent.

"That is difficult while you have violence because private investment, private companies have security problems," said Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller, noting Western efforts to train Iraqi forces to take over more security tasks.

The final conference communique will call on Iraq's creditors to give generous debt relief and pledge support to Baghdad's efforts to join bodies such as the World Trade Organization, said an EU diplomat, who declined to be named.

Iraq accumulated $120 billion in debt during the reign of former President Saddam Hussein, mostly to fund the 1980-1988 war with Iran, although tens of billions of dollars were forgiven last year.

n Despite reported successes against the insurgency in Iraq, a top U.S. military commander said on Tuesday that the United States was unlikely to reduce its 135,000 troops there before elections late this year.

"At this point, I would not be prepared to recommend a draw-down prior to the election, certainly not any significant numbers," Army Lieutenant General John Vines, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters.

But Vines said significant reductions could begin early next year following a referendum on a planned constitution this October and a subsequent national election on a new Iraqi government in December.

Vines warned that polls in the United States showing a majority of Americans now oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq suggested "they don't have a good perception of what is at stake here."