What can Russia do at the Iraq conference in Egypt?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) - Iraq's neighbors will meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on the Red Sea, in early May to discuss the situation in the war-ravaged country. The conference will be held in two stages.

On the first day, May 3, the conference will initiate the so-called International Agreement on Assistance to Iraq, the offspring of cooperation between the Iraqi government and the UN. The plan provides for taking political, military, social and economic measures to improve the situation in Iraq. It will outline the medium-term goals of the local government and solidify the international commitment to appropriate funds to achieve them.

The conference will be a follow-up of the first meeting of Iraq's donors, held in Madrid in October 2003. But this time social and economic issues will be tied to political problems that must be solved in order to stabilize the security situation in the country.

This makes sense, as it has become clear in the four years since the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime that Iraq's social and economic revival is hindered by inadequate security. Terrorists attack specialists from foreign companies and humanitarian organizations as well as Iraqis, which makes working there almost impossible.

Russians have learned that bitter truth from their own experience. Employees of Interenergoservice, a construction company, were attacked three times in a matter of six weeks in 2004 (there were two kidnappings and one incident of shooting at a company bus). Three Russians were killed and eight wounded. After that, Russian companies evacuated nearly all their employees from Iraq.

In June 2006, terrorists attacked members of the Russian embassy. A group reportedly connected with al-Qaeda assumed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of four Russians.

Russia is not one of the donors; it prefers to help Iraq on a bilateral basis. In particular, it has agreed to write off a substantial part of Iraq's debt, has helped it to modernize major power-generation facilities, and is prepared to cooperate with it in the oil sector.

"We do not want to spread out the money between foundations; instead, we are prepared to work on individual projects with the Iraqi government. Our companies have expressed a desire to resume operations in Iraq," said a source with close ties to the Russian delegation that will attend the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, on condition of anonymity.

Yury Shafranik, head of the Russian Union of Oil and Gas Producers and former head of the Committee for Cultural, Business and Technical Cooperation with Iraq, has confirmed that stance.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow in mid-April, he said Russian companies might resume operations in Iraq this year, if there are no force majeure circumstances.

He said a schedule of business meetings, conferences and visits to Russia by Iraqi officials had been approved by both sides for this year, which could be a good start. Shafranik also said Russian companies could work in Iraq "as investors, members of consortiums, and contractors."

Therefore, Russia will most likely act as an observer on the first day of the conference, although the agreement to be approved on May 3 seems to have been formulated very well. But will the sides honor their commitments under the agreement? Legally, it will not be a direct-action document, which means that its provisions may remain on paper, as has happened more than once in Iraq.

On the second day of the conference, May 4, Iraq's neighbors will hold an extended meeting with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and representatives of the G8 countries. Russia intends to play an active role there.

"We expect a concrete discussion of measures to stabilize Iraq. It could be a very positive discussion, since the meeting is to be attended by all parties involved in the attempt to settle the Iraqi problem," RIA Novosti's source said.

The source added that Russia would offer its view of measures that should be taken to settle the problem, and it would also put forward proposals. He refused to go into detail, saying that positions were still under discussion, including with some foreign partners. However, he said that Russia's stance on Iraq had not changed.

"We have always advocated national reconciliation," the source said. "Since 2003, we have been working to include that provision in all decisions made at international meetings on Iraq, trying to convince some of our foreign partners who rejected the idea to reconsider their positions. Now everyone is talking about reconciliation, which can be described as progress, but talking is not enough. The Iraqi opposition has still not become an equal participant in international discussions on an Iraqi settlement."

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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