Though bloody fighting in Iraq continued and CNN reported the discovery of what might have been the room in Fallujah where British hostage Kenneth Bigley was beheaded, Monday's international papers dealt with more than the wanton killing. A conference to deal with the troubled country got under way Monday in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, a day after a date was set for Iraqi elections and Baghdad was given a massive debt write-off by Paris Club lenders.
The two-day Sharm al-Sheikh gathering—bringing together Iraq, its neighbors, the G-8 countries, China, the Arab League, the Organization for the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, and the European Union—had been burdened by low expectations. However, in recent days the mood changed in favor of something less futile, as the potential stakes in the conference became more obvious. In this context, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat listed five key, and divisive, issues to be addressed: the presence of foreign forces in Iraq, the targeting of civilians, the upcoming elections, the resistance, and the establishment of a federal system. The latter issue particularly distresses Iraq's neighbors, who fear the establishment of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region might encourage their own Kurdish minorities to follow suit. Al-Hayat said that Syria sought to "eliminate the expression 'federalism' from the final communiqué, even as Syria, Iran and Turkey are moving in the direction of 'concentrating on the unity of Iraq, its land and people, because the problem isn't federalism, but the nature of this federalism.' "
An opinion piece Saturday in Lebanon's Daily Star argued that Sharm al-Sheikh "provide[d] a critical opening for the Bush administration and the new Iraqi leadership to engage Iraq's neighbors." The parties could address "practical problems like border security, debt relief and humanitarian aid [and] more broadly … initiate a larger diplomatic process that brings greater legitimacy to the interim [Iraqi] government and provides a regular forum for Iraq and its neighbors to improve cooperation."
France's Le Monde focused on another hot-button issue: the duration of the foreign (read, American) troop presence. As the paper recalled, Paris had initially hoped the conference "would be placed under the aegis of the UN, that the issue of withdrawals would be debated and a [withdrawal] timetable set, and that all Iraqi groups [including certain resistance groups] would be involved." The French failed to get any of this, and the troop presence will be dealt within the context of Security Council Resolution 1546, which doesn't set a strict timetable but does terminate the U.N. mandate authorizing the presence at the end of 2005. No expectation of an early departure exists in Britain, however, if one properly interprets what the commander of the British Army, Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, told London's Independent. According to the paper, he "appeared to suggest that the British deployment could go on beyond December 2005, when the mandate for the coalition in Iraq officially ends. 'How long we stay there is going to be event-driven,' he said."
Just before the conference, the Iraqi electoral commission set the date for elections to a 275-member transitional national assembly, which will prepare a new constitution, for Jan. 30, 2005. London's Daily Telegraph called the elections a "gamble," largely because of the threat of a widespread Sunni boycott. The paper also noted that some U.N. officials had urged postponement, while Le Monde said the deadline was "subject to caution, as there are increasing doubts as to the feasibility [of holding elections]," given the insurgency. That said, with a deadline set, it would be tough to delay the date without alienating the majority Shiites. The leading cleric in the community, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has repeatedly insisted elections be held on time.
The interim Iraqi government of Ayad Allawi received heartening news Sunday that Russia, France, and Germany had agreed to forgive up to 80 percent of Iraq's debt, a decision that was also especially welcome to the Bush administration. The Financial Times observed that this would "relieve Iraq of $33 [billion] of debt and paves the way for a broader agreement among the Paris Club of creditors which will be the benchmark for other holders of Iraq's total sovereign debt of $125 [billion]." The paper added that Washington "had been pressing for a 90-95 per cent write-off of Iraqi debts, while French, Russian and other creditors had signaled that they would only be willing to forgive 50 per cent." The decision was also a distinct sign of greater trans-Atlantic willingness to compromise over Iraq, whatever Franco-American differences over the foreign troop presence there.