A new show of support for Iraq

White House efforts to convince the public that the United States is on the right track in Iraq extended beyond Washington Wednesday to an international conference that broadly endorsed the perspective of a stable and free Iraq being crucial for the whole world.

With Americans' support for the Iraq project sagging to new lows, the Bush administration sought to demonstrate through the large international gathering that the effort is no longer America's alone but a priority of the international community.

The event fit into a White House strategy to shore up flagging domestic support for the Iraq effort. President Bush will welcome Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari at the White House Friday. He will take up Iraq again next week when he speaks on the first anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi leadership.

As the top US representative, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the meeting marked "a new partnership between the international community and a democratic and free Iraq." Envisioned primarily as a way to bolster the international legitimacy of Iraq's political process, the conference did not result in any substantial new aid. A donors' conference, however, is scheduled in Jordan next month.

The meeting did mark a warming of Arab countries toward the newest government in the region, with Egypt announcing it would send an ambassador to Baghdad and Jordan pledging to do so soon. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that Baghdad would also reestablish diplomatic ties with Kuwait that have been severed since the 1991 Gulf War. Until now, Arab countries had declined to send diplomatic representatives to Baghdad, citing security risks. But US officials have voiced suspicions that the region's Sunni-led regimes have been reluctant to show support for a Shiite-dominated government.

Secretary Rice also took the unusual step of singling out one country and the contribution expected from it, saying that "Syria in particular" must secure its border "from those who seek to destroy Iraq's progress." Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari said at an afternoon press conference Wednesday that it was "extremely unfortunate" that "some of our neighbors have not been helpful enough." Rice concurred, "We have forces near that border. We know what's coming across."

But Rice also acknowledged good relations between Baghdad and Tehran and said that the US wants Iraq to have good relations with all its neighbors.

The US, which agreed to cohost the conference with the European Union, was not the only participant seeking to use the largely symbolic gathering to make a political point. The Europeans wanted to reassure the world that, despite the EU's internal crisis, they are able to play a central role in the international arena. And the Iraqis wanted to demonstrate that they have a diverse and competent government, are increasingly independent of their American benefactors, and are ready to receive a wide variety of international assistance. "This conference is really about the stronger engagement of the international community in Iraq," said Zebari.

The large delegation of Iraqi officials - including eight ministers and the leader of the National Assembly - was warmly received by representatives of more than 80 countries and international organizations. But some participants reported deep doubts about Iraq's future and the current government's ability to improve conditions - including conditions for receiving more international aid - within the next few months.

To counter those doubts, Iraqi officials are floating proposals for proceeding with reconstruction in those parts of the country that are calm enough for a massive infusion of aid. Such a plan would presumably allow for advancing reconstruction in the predominantly Shiite south and Kurdish north, while shutting out the restive Sunni west and the troubled capital of Baghdad.

For some Iraq experts, the plan could have the advantage of encouraging a healthy decentralization - while at the same time having the unhealthy effect of feeding Iraq's deepening divisions.

But such a plan makes sense when otherwise, assistance to the large, relatively peaceful parts would be shut off, says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington and a frequent visitor to Iraq. "The insurgency really has cut off Baghdad from the rest of the country, and it doesn't look like it will be opening for business tomorrow," she says, acknowledging at the same time that such an approach could feed the very divisions that the US especially is worried about.

In Brussels, Zebari sought to reassure international leaders on prospects for improved security with new Iraqi forces. He said it would be "understandable" if the US began "some withdrawal" of its forces next year because "by then the capacity of our military would be greater."

Indeed, some US military officials are beginning to discuss the conditions for starting a drawdown of US troops sometime next year. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Lt. Gen. John Vines, second in command of US troops in Iraq, said that some withdrawal of US troops could begin by March of next year. But he said that would remain contingent on security conditions.

Still, that optimism runs counter to the private assessments of and even some public statements by Pentagon officials.

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