"There has been an approval of the declaration. This opens the way for a constructive meeting for tomorrow [Tuesday]," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghaith, who chaired the foreign ministers' meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Shaikh on Monday.

  

"The meeting was very positive. There was a convergence of views. We discussed the elections, the need to see the widest participation and boost security," he said, speaking of "references" to the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq.

  

"There's an understanding that there's a target date [for the pullout] which is December 2005, so that is not open-ended," al-Ghaith said after a two-hour meeting which kicked off the conference.

  

"You will see this reference in tomorrow's declaration," he said, hinting that there may be a slight change to the draft.

 

Preparatory meetings

  

The draft declaration, hammered out after tussles between France and the United States in a string of preparatory meetings, says the deployment of US-led forces in Iraq "is not open-ended".

 

Kofi Annan (2nd L) will attend
the plenary on Tuesday

It gives no timetable for their withdrawal, as some countries had sought.

  

But it refers to UN Security Council Resolution 1546, which states that the mandate of the forces would run out "upon completion of the political process" with the formation of an elected government by the end of next year.

  

Also in the draft declaration, the conference is to stress a UN role in helping with elections, condemn terrorism, kidnapping and the murder of civilians in Iraq, and urge cooperation or at least "non-interference" from neighbouring countries.

  

Plenary session

 

Abu al-Ghaith and his Iraqi opposite number Hushiar Zibari were joined at the meeting by counterparts from Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, ahead of the plenary session on Tuesday.

  

"We discussed the elections, the need to see the widest participation and boost security"

Ahmad Abu al-Ghaith,
Egyptian foreign minister

The United Nations was represented at the talks by the special envoy to Iraq Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and Secretary-General Kofi Annan's adviser al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi for a briefing on the preparations for the elections.

  

Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Mulki, emerging from the talks, said each delegation voiced their support for the election process.

  

The Iranian and Syrian delegations, whose countries have been accused of meddling in Iraq and allowing the infiltration of fighters across their borders, "made very positive statements", he said.

  

The plenary session of the Sharm al-Shaikh conference on Tuesday will include US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the foreign ministers of Britain, France, other Western powers, China, Japan and Russia as well as UN chief Annan.

  

The European Union, Arab League and Organisation of the Islamic Conference are also taking part.