By Daniel Williams
May 3 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a major conference on Iraq's economy and security that there has been progress toward reconciling his country's warring factions and appealed for debt reduction to help jump-start the economy.
He asserted that his Shiite Muslim-dominated government is non-sectarian and that it has taken firm steps to curb militias that have assaulted the Sunni Muslim minority.
``We ask brotherly countries to acknowledge progress that has been made in a past period,'' he told the meeting that opened today in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. ``The government is serious about armed militias and restricting use of arms to the state.''
The meeting, attended by about 50 countries, is the first part of a two-day conference that includes key players in Iraq. They will endorse a United Nations plan called the International Compact with Iraq. The compact proposes pledges of debt cancellation and other financial aid in return for Iraq's fulfillment of economic reforms and political reconciliation.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is attending, a signal that the Bush administration, which once eschewed diplomacy over Iraq, is now willing to talk, even with Middle East adversaries Iran and Syria. Rice began a meeting today with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem. No talks have yet been set with Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki.
Tomorrow, Iraq, its Arab neighbors, Iran, the U.S. and other members of the UN Security Council and European countries, will discuss ways to quell violence in the country.
Support for Terrorists
The Bush administration accuses both Iran and Syria of supporting guerrillas, militias and terrorists in Iraq. Syria and Iran contend that the presence of U.S. forces incites violence of all sorts.
``The conference is a beginning and not an end in itself,'' Rice told delegates during a round of opening statements. She said the gathering will send a ``powerful message to the Iraqi people'' that foreign countries ``will continue to be a partner of the Iraqi government.''
Al-Maliki's opening statement, made in a large convention center in Sharm el-Sheik, echoed a call from the United States for him to persuade Arab neighbors that his government is not anti-Sunni. The U.S. wants Arabs to fully endorse al-Maliki's government and urge Sunni insurgents to stop fighting.
Sunni Muslims, about a fifth of Iraq's 23 million population, made up the bulk of popular support for Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader overthrown during the U.S.-led 2003 invasion and executed by hanging last year. Most Arab countries are Sunni-led and contend the al-Maliki government is cutting Sunnis adrift in favor of Shiites.
Sunni attacks on Shiites have taken tens of thousands of civilian lives. Shiite militias have killed thousands of Sunnis, many by summary execution. The combined sectarian violence has raised fears that Iraq is in a state of civil war.
Reinforcement of U.S. troops in Baghdad has yet to quell the killing. About 3,350 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since the invasion. On May 1, al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, warned that ``terrorist attacks that target Iraq are not limited to Iraq, but will spread to every country in the world.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Sharm el-Sheik atLast Updated: May 3, 2007 10:16 EDT