Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghait told the opening session in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Shaikh on Tuesday that Iraq's salvation lay in making the election successful and ensuring that all reasonable forces take part.

"A consensus will not come about except by expanding the scope of dialogue between national forces, bridging the gap which divides the various parties and rejecting the politics of violence and intimidation," he said.

Aljazeera's Hussain Abd al-Ghani reported that the Egyptian foreign minister was determined to mention the necessity of withdrawing US-led forces from Iraq before December 2005.

He said Abu al-Ghait was trying to avoid leaving the issue to the interim government.

The foreign minister was also determined to present the international community's worries over the non-participation of many Iraqi groups in the conference, especially the Sunnis.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the conference: "As we approach the elections, every effort must be made to provide incentives for the various Iraqi groups to participate in a national reconciliation process."

The conference brings together about 20 foreign ministers, some from the countries that invaded Iraq last year and others from governments that opposed the invasion.

Election boycott

They say their aim is to help restore internal peace and security in Iraq, where Iraqi fighters are waging war on the government and the US and other troops that keep it in power.

A statement prepared in advance advises the interim government to call a meeting of as many political groups as possible before the elections to encourage full participation.

Some Arab Sunni groups have threatened to boycott them because they oppose the US military presence and see the interim government as an American puppet.

"We are determined to make a success of the general elections. They must be held across the country, in all fairness and be open to all those components of Iraqi society which accept the rules of democracy"

Michel Barnier,
French Foreign Minister

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, one of the countries that most strongly opposed the invasion, said all Iraqis had to "feel a sense of ownership".

"We are determined to make a success of the general elections. They must be held across the country, in all fairness and be open to all those components of Iraqi society which accept the rules of democracy," he added.

In weeks of negotiations over the final statement, France failed to persuade the United States, Britain and the Iraqi interim government to accept a firm date for a troop withdrawal.

The text as it stands merely repeats the language of a UN resolution which, in effect, allows a future Iraqi government to invite US and British forces to stay indefinitely.

French initiative

Barnier returned to the theme on Tuesday, saying that for the sake of peace, Iraqis must know that the troops will go.

He said the UN resolution, passed by the Security Council in June, means the mandate for the troops ends on 31 December 2005.

Iran's foreign minister called on
foreign troops to pull out of Iraq

"Hostility towards foreign troops leads many Iraqis to distance themselves from the process. It is therefore vital to recall this deadline and state clearly that Iraqis will have full mastery over their country's affairs, including over security and military issues," Barnier said.

But he also struck a conciliatory tone towards the US and Britain, represented at the conference by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

"We all know what positions our different countries held in the period that led to the current situation developing. But today we must turn to the future. France and Europe, are ready to do so," he said.

Another dispute was over whether unofficial Iraqis, including opponents of the government, could take part in the conference.

France said they should but Baghdad successfully blocked the French initiative.

Scepticism

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Clerics in Baghdad, which controls hundreds of Sunni mosques in Iraq, has said the body had no confidence in the conference because it had ignored the French demands.

"It has digressed from its most important announced goals," the spokesman said on Tuesday.

"The main target of the United States and the Iraqi government in this conference is to add more legitimacy to the US occupation of Iraq and earn an external legitimacy for the Iraqi government which lacks an internal one"

Dhafir al-Ani,
Iraqi political analyst

And Dhafir al-Ani, an Iraqi political analyst based in Doha, told Aljazeera that there was a clash of political wills at the conference.

"The main target of the United States and the Iraqi government in this conference is to add more legitimacy to the US occupation of Iraq and earn an external legitimacy for the Iraqi government which lacks an internal one," he said.

  

"Many forces in Iraq have agreed that these elections cannot be held appropriately under the current unstable situation in the country.

 

"The elections law itself does not give fair and equal chances for all parties. How can we join the ideas of occupation and democracy together?"

 

Bombing and silencing

 

Ani's views were echoed by Abd al-Amir Alwan, a London-based Iraqi political activist who was interviewed by Aljazeera.

 

"The vital question to be asked is whether the conference was held to get Iraq out of its catastrophe, to get the US from its catastrophe or to relieve some regional and international groups from their responsibilities and commitments from what is happening in Iraq," he said.

 

As for the elections, Alwan said: "All Iraqis are longing for real democratic elections, carried out in a free atmosphere and away from the domination of the occupation and militias.

 

"But the main problem is that the Americans and the Iraqi interim government, which has adopted the American plan, want elections to be carried out despite all that is happening in Iraq," he said.

 

"The Iraqi interim government wants to carry out elections by bombing cities and silencing national voices which think that elections will be conducted without international supervision."