Iraq Funds Plea Gets Tentative Nod

TOKYO – The desperate plea by Iraq’s interim government for more funds from the international community to help stabilize the country, where bombings, kidnappings and ambushes have become a daily part of life, received a tentative nod of support from donors gathered at a conference here that ended Thursday.

"This meeting has put a special emphasis on the reconstruction process in Iraq and pushed forward Iraqi involvement through Iraqi ministries and non-governmental organizations, " said Mehdi Hafedh, the minister of planning and development cooperation and chair of the Iraq Strategic Review Board, at a press conference.

"We have reached a number of agreements about how to speed up the process of implementation," he said.

Earlier, Iraq’s interim deputy prime minister Barham Saleh said assistance and aid in the short term is the key to destroying the causes of terrorism.

"It is also the only way we can build a sustainable, long-term future for our people," he told reporters.

This is the fourth donors’ meeting since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the first since the June handover of sovereignty from the U.S. to the interim government.

Iraq has not appealed for further donations of aid at this conference, but is asking nations and organizations to unlock funds already pledged.

The Iraqi government plans to allocate a total of $30 billion on reconstruction measures from 2005 to 2007 and expects half of it to be financed by foreign donations, minister Hafedh said.

Widely touted, not as a pledging conference, but a venue to the discuss and review the pledged $1 billion for the Iraqi Trust Fund under the administration of the World Bank and United Nations Development Group, the two-day meeting also brought high-level representatives that included Germany, France and Russia – countries that opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year.

The trust fund is to be used for developing social services such as roads, schools, hospitals and is supported heavily by Japan, which pledged $490 million.

The European Union and 13 countries have committed more than $10 million each and Iran, at the conference, became the 15th member of the trust fund with a pledge of also $10 million.

The closed-door donors conference was attended by 53 countries and four organizations.

"For those countries that held back on political or geopolitical grounds, we ask you should not withdraw or delay your support any longer," said Saleh.

General elections in Iraq are provisionally scheduled for January, a timeframe U.S. and Iraqi officials have kept in place despite the ongoing violence.

But deputy premier Saleh acknowledged the problems and said more help was needed on the ground – particularly from organizations like the United Nations.

"This meeting is crucial for the reconstruction process now going on in Iraq. By getting together and discussing the trust fund, there is a commitment to keep going to improve the situation and bring social services to the Iraqi people," said Bisrat Akilu, executive coordinator of United Nations Development Group of the Iraqi Trust Fund.

But a senior UN official warned that Iraq has "huge challenges" in store before becoming what the international community wants the country to be.

"To actually transform what has been a totalitarian society into a democratic system is not something that happens overnight," Ross Mountain, deputy special representative for the UN secretary general for Iraq, told a press meeting Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

In a show of support to the interim Iraqi government, Japan on Wednesday offered $40 million to help Iraq hold the January elections successfully, although it was not a new pledge, as the money will come from the $490 million Japan has contributed to the trust fund.

Other Iraqi delegates repeated pleas to creditors to forgive Baghdad its debts of around $125 billion – though this topic is not officially on the agenda of the Tokyo conference.

Independent analysts in Tokyo pointed out the conference has shown Islamic militants in Iraq that the international community is firmly behind the interim Iraqi government.

"But it remains in doubt whether the delegates in Tokyo have been able to stop the militants from committing terrorism in Iraq," said analyst Yutaka Takaoka at the respected Middle East Research Institute based in Tokyo.

UN representative Akilu acknowledged reconstruction could only go ahead if the interim Iraqi government could reduce the daily killings in the country.

He pointed out that there are only a few UN staff members on the ground – a situation that seriously hinders the development process.