An Iraqi delegation headed by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has travelled to Brussels to map out the way ahead with top diplomats from the United States, the European Union, Russia, Japan, Arab nations and other countries.

 

UN chief Kofi Annan will also be attending the Wednesday conference.

 

"I think the Iraqis can expect a lot of international support from a very important conference," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after dinner late on Tuesday with the various delegations.

 

It is the first such conference attended by the interim government elected in Iraq's landmark elections in January, an event which muted some of the opposition in Europe over the US-led invasion in March 2003.

 

"The international consensus that has long eluded us on Iraq is now in place," said European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

 

However, the continuing violence is greater than many anticipated, including Britain, a staunch US ally.

 

Quick action

 

For Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari, the international community must move quickly to stabilise and rebuild Iraq or risk seeing shockwaves sent through the Middle East and even further.

 

Zibari says to stabilise Iraq, the
country must be rebuilt quickly

"That's why the stakes are high," he said.

 

Zibari said he hoped for steps that would lead to building more hospitals and power stations in Iraq as well as freeing up billions of dollars in international aid that were pledged but never delivered.

 

Technical and logistical help is needed in helping Iraq draft a constitution in August, hold a referendum in October and organise elections in December, Zibari added.

 

Debt relief

 

Debt relief has been billed as a key agenda item but there was no indication what sort of offers were in the pipeline beyond the $32-billion package announced by the Paris Club of creditor nations in November.

 

Rice played down hopes of a breakthrough on Iraq's crushing debt. "I'm sure we'll have those conversations, but I don't expect that there will be really an outcome in that regard," she said.

 

Rice is doubtful Iraq's debt crisis
will be easily resolved 

Iraq also hopes that the Brussels conference will provide support to reform its judicial and penal systems, in serious need of strengthening to help get a grip on the continuing unrest, more than two years after former president Saddam Hussein's ouster.

 

On this front, the EU is set to launch an unprecedented initiative next month by training some 800 Iraqi judges, senior officials and police officers, outside the country.

 

An EU diplomat denied that the conference was purely symbolic, but also downplayed prospects of dramatic concrete action - for that she pointed to a donors' conference due in mid-July in Amman.