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Conference on Iraq May Encourage Leader to Meet Opponents

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A26

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, Nov. 22 -- An international conference on Iraq is expected to call on the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to meet with its political opponents to encourage them to participate in the country's first democratic elections in January, according to a draft of the conference's final communique.

The document also indicated that Iraq's neighbors would be pressured to pledge non-interference in Iraqi affairs by cutting off the flow of would-be insurgents across its borders.

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But participants in the conference, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and representatives of 19 other countries are attending, were deeply divided during preliminary discussions over whether the communique should include a deadline for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. France and some Arab states had pushed to include a specific date for withdrawal, conference participants said. Compromise language in the draft communique says that the U.S.-led deployment of foreign forces in Iraq is not open-ended and notes that its mandate from the United Nations expires in June.

In a surprise encounter, Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi were dinner partners at the opening meeting Monday night. U.S. and Iranian officials, who had said there were no plans for discussions between the two men, expressed surprise at the dinner-table arrangement, and both sides said they believed the pairing was set up by Egypt, the conference host.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been mounting again over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Last week, Powell said that the United States had recent information that Iran was working on technology to adapt missiles to carry a nuclear warhead, a charge that Tehran denied.

Powell and Kharrazi engaged only in "some polite dinner conversation," a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Powell. "I do not consider the nuclear issues polite dinner conversation."

A senior Iranian official provided an identical version of events.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of President Saddam Hussein, Iraqi and U.S. officials have alleged that Iran has not closed its border with Iraq to weapons or to infiltrators opposed to the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops there. Iran has also provided tens of millions of dollars to Iraqi groups, they say. That alleged conduct was one of the prime reasons that the draft communique called on all parties to reaffirm Iraq's political independence and territorial integrity as well as the importance of neighboring states not interfering in its internal affairs.

The draft endorses holding Iraqi elections in January, although some Arab countries had urged consideration of a delay to ensure a comprehensive effort to bring disaffected Sunni Muslims into the process.

"What's sacred in the democratic process is the full participation of all segments of the population," Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Mulki said, according to the Reuters news agency. "If the date comes and it was suitable and a good day for elections, that's fine. But the dates are not sacred. The process is the only sacred thing."

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy said a bomb was discovered on a commercial flight inside Iraq, and gunmen in the northern city of Mosul assassinated Faidh Mohamed Amin Faidhi, a prominent Sunni cleric and opponent of the scheduled elections, news services reported.

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