Iraqi PM calls for debt relief at UN conference

Maliki also praises his country's security and economic progress, says his gov't has kept Iraq from descending into the "abyss of civil war."

Nouri al-Maliki 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nouri al-Maliki 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Iraq's prime minister on Thursday called on neighboring countries to forgive debt and compensation payments, saying they are hindering Iraq's road to recovery despite a reduction in violence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also praised his country's security and economic progress and said the government had kept Iraq from descending into the "abyss of civil war." "Iraq has achieved major success in the battle against terrorism with the support of the international community," al-Maliki told a UN conference on Iraq, speaking through a translator. Iraq has at least $67 billion in foreign debt - most incurred during the rule of Saddam Hussein and owed to fellow Arab countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. In addition, the Geneva-based UN Compensation Commission says US$28 billion remains to be paid for Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraq gives 5 percent of its oil revenue to meet the compensation claims. Al-Maliki said Iraq needs to get rid of the burden of war reparations and debt, which he called "an impediment against reconstruction and development." Last year, Saudi Arabia announced it would forgive Iraq's debt but so far has failed to implement that decision. Kuwait still insists that Iraq pay compensation for damages from the invasion. Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia sent midlevel officials to the conference rather than ministers. "Compensation has been forced on Iraq as a state, not on the previous Iraqi regime, so legally they are obliged to pay," Kuwait's representative, Undersecretary Mansour Al Otaibi, told The Associated Press. He added that Kuwaiti and Iraqi officials need to meet to agree on exactly how much is owed. Some US politicians, meanwhile, have balked at giving more money to Iraq because of the amount of money it is raising from oil revenues. Oil brought in US$16 billion in the first quarter of the year and US$5.9 billion last month alone. The Iraqi government maintains it should not be obligated to repay debts incurred by Saddam's dictatorship, which denied basic rights to its own citizens, including any say over government policy. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the conference host, said debt relief for Iraq should not be unconditional. "We want them to come back and show progress, that's also the idea with this conference," he told the AP. More than 500 delegates from dozens of countries and international organizations were attending the conference outside Stockholm, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari lamented that Arab representation at the conference was very weak, with only the Jordanian foreign minister and the secretary-general of the Arab League in attendance. Rice told reporters before the conference that Iraq needs technical assistance and support rather than "large sums of money." U.S. Treasury Deputy Secretary Robert Kimmitt said the Treasury will double the size of its presence in Iraq from 12 to 24 experts in the next six to nine months. Later, Rice urged Arab neighbors to support Iraq through official visits and by opening embassies in Baghdad. Kuwait last month said it was looking to buy a building for an embassy in Baghdad's US-guarded Green Zone. It would be the first Kuwaiti Embassy in Iraq since Saddam invaded his tiny oil-rich neighbor in 1990. The conference comes as the US military says violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in more than four years, following a series of crackdowns on Sunni and Shiite extremists. Ban said there was new hope for the Iraqi people to rebuild their country after war but called for reconciliation among the country's Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. "I urge Iraqi communities to work together in a spirit of national unity to resolve fundamental issues that continue to divide them," Ban told the conference. Some attacks do continue in Iraq. An Iraqi official said Thursday that 16 people had been killed and 14 wounded in a suicide bombing at a police recruiting center in the northwest of the country. Iraq's Sunni Arab minority has long felt it is being sidelined by the majority Shiites and the Kurds, who dominate the Iraqi parliament and al-Maliki's government. The largest Sunni Arab political bloc pulled its members out of Iraq's 39-member Cabinet in August, saying it was not getting enough say in decision-making. Sunni politicians have been negotiating a possible return, but said Wednesday they suspended talks due to a dispute over ministry posts. The conference is the first annual review of the International Compact with Iraq, a sweeping five-year economic and political reform package that Ban helped broker last May in Egypt. The compact defined international help for Iraq - including debt relief _ but also set tough commitments on the Baghdad government, particularly carrying out reforms aimed at giving Sunni Arabs a greater role in the political process. Demonstrations were planned in Stockholm and outside the conference center in Upplands Vasby, about 15 miles north of the capital.