Iraq Summit Rejects French Demand for Troop Withdrawal Timetable

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

( - Diplomats ended a conference hosted by Egypt Tuesday united in support for democratic elections in Iraq next January, but a French attempt to secure a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops was rebuffed.

Participants at the summit in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh -- including representatives of Iraq's interim government, Iraq's neighbors, Arab and Islamic states, and the G8 industrialized nations -- also called for an end to kidnappings, assassinations and "all acts of terrorism in Iraq."

Led by arch-critic of the war France, some countries -- including Egypt and Iran -- pressed for the meeting to set a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign forces, preferably by the end of next year.

Instead, they had to be satisfied with a statement to the effect that the mandate of U.S.-led forces was not "open-ended" and that nations should continue in their efforts to help Iraqi forces assume full responsibility for security.

In a clear message to delegates whose nations opposed the war and regard the multinational force as an occupying army, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari indicated that the troops' presence was vital ahead of the elections scheduled for Jan. 29.

"The contribution of the multinational force is essential to help secure necessary conditions for voting and to support our security forces in stabilizing the country," Zebari told the gathering.

The final communique released at the end of the meeting also called on all parties in Iraq to avoid excessive force and be careful not to hurt civilians. It highlighted the United Nations' "leading role" in preparing Iraq for elections.

Because of concerns that fighters, weapons and money were illegally crossing into Iraq, the document called on the neighboring states to "intensify cooperation" to control their borders with Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who represented the U.S. at the meeting, said he had discussed the subject with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa.

"The Syrians have taken some steps recently [to secure the border], but we think there's a lot more they can do," Powell said.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said his government had come to the meeting with the aim of finding solutions and did not wish to be a spectator or a voice of opposition to other countries.

Nonetheless, throughout the post-war rebuilding process, France has made clear its differences with the coalition.

President Jacques Chirac recently restated his view that the toppling of Saddam Hussein had made the world more dangerous.

When European leaders met with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Brussels earlier this month, Chirac skipped the event, leaving Brussels instead for a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

The French leader said he had to pay his condolences following the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, but the move was widely seen as a snub to Allawi and, indirectly, to the U.S.

Ahead of the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, Paris again went against the flow, saying in Barnier's words that it wanted the gathering open to "all Iraqi political forces, to involve them in the process of democratizing the country."

But the U.S. and other participants rejected the idea that opposition groups attend, and only Iraqi government representatives were invited.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow