Iraq's neighbors vow to not meddle

Monday, February 16, 2004

KUWAIT CITY -- Iraq's neighbors pledged Sunday not to meddle in Iraqi affairs but urged U.S.-led coalition forces to fulfill their duty in providing security there.

Foreign ministers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Syria plus politically influential Egypt wrapped up a two-day meeting at a luxury hotel in the Kuwaiti capital Sunday about the repercussions of developments in Iraq on their region.

The nations affirmed "their commitment to the principal of noninterference in domestic affairs" and urged others to do the same.

The group's final communique vowed to support Iraqis as they assume control of their country from U.S.-led forces July 1 and respect the wishes of the Iraqi people. They urged the United Nations to "carry out its pivotal responsibilities" in hastening the transfer of power and carrying out the country's elections.

The group also expressed the importance of a unified Iraq.

Arab nations had expressed concern about a proposal by the U.S.-led coalition to reorganize Iraq into a federal system before transferring power, fearing it may empower ethnic groups and lead to the country's partition and regional instability.

But Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, assured the ministers that would not happen and asked them to keep out of Iraqi affairs.

He told The Associated Press they should "leave it for the Iraqis themselves to decide their own political future, and not dictate."

The issue of securing borders with neighboring countries did not figure in the final communique. That is most pressing for Iraqis who fear foreign fighters will cross the border and stir up trouble.

However, the ministers condemned acts of terror in Iraq, saying those who carry them out must be identified and punished. They called on the U.S.-led coalition to "assume (its) responsibilities ... according to international agreements." They did not elaborate.

Zebari had said Saturday he would urge the neighbors to help "tighten border controls to prevent infiltrating hostile elements" who have been attacking coalition soldiers and Iraqis.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa shrugged off suspicions that foreign fighters may crossing Syria's border with Iraq.

"There are no infiltrators from Syria at all. Ask the foreign minister of Iraq, he knows that," al-Sharaa said Sunday.

He added that the responsibility of security inside Iraq is not the responsibility of neighboring countries, saying "we are keen to maintain secure borders, but whatever is inside Iraq's borders is the responsibility of whoever is (in charge) in Iraq."

The next meeting of Iraq's neighbors will be held in Egypt.

No date has been set, but Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said the meeting must precede the deadline for transferring power to the Iraqis "so we can be in a position to offer any assistance needed by Iraqis to realize this aim."

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