UN pledges a 'new Iraq' as the carnage continues

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Supporters and opponents of the US-led war in Iraq have agreed to rebuild the country as a pluralist democracy at a conference designed to draw a line under deep international divisions over American policy in the Middle East.

Heavy on rhetoric but light on practical results, the meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels brought together representatives from more than 80 countries and organisations, including Iran and Syria, to endorse the Iraqi government's plans to restore order, revive the economy and draft a constitution. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said it "marked a watershed for Iraq," and that its people should "take heart from this strong message of support".

However, the violence continued unabated yesterday in Iraq, where three car bombs, which went off almost simultaneously about half a mile apart, killed 18 people and wounded 48 in a mainly Shia district of west Baghdad.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, issued a tough message to Damascus, accusing it of destabilising Iraq and arguing: "Syria has a responsibility to the international community and to its neighbours not to allow its territory to be used for the gathering of people who are wreaking havoc and causing harm to innocent Iraqis."

Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshiyar Zebari said networks of "terrorists using Syria to transit into Iraq" could be stopped "if the political will exists".

The Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Shara, said his country was being denied the sophisticated monitoring equipment that would help it guard its frontier, arguing: "The party preventing Syria from securing the border better is the same one that is strongly criticising Syria," he said.

Nevertheless, significant participants were determined to put the best gloss on events in Iraq, despite the continuing problems. Sponsored jointly by the US and the EU, the meeting backed efforts to achieve "a democratic, pluralist, federal and unified Iraq" and urged the authorities in Baghdad to accommodate the country's Sunni minority in its political structures. The authorities should, it argued, "intensify efforts to engage all parties renouncing violence in the political process". Mr Zebari said: "No one wants to marginalise any one section in Iraq."

Ms Rice's declaration that Iraq was "on its way to democracy", gained backing from those who were fiercely opposed to the US-led invasion.

Germany's Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, said: "A democratic process is taking place that is vital for us, whether you were against the war or not."

Yesterday's gathering was the product of President George Bush's visit to Europe earlier this year, and European allies were on their best behaviour, stressing the common interest in a stable Iraq.

Such declarations aside, the meeting discussed Iraq's path to membership of the World Trade Organisation, debt forgiveness and diplomatic recognition.

But there were no decisions on financial support for Iraq, an issue that will be discussed at a donor conference in the Jordanian capital, Amman, next month. Iraq's Finance Minister, Ali Allawi, complained of sparse aid receipts, saying they had not reached the "expected levels", and there were calls for greater contributions from wealthy neighbours such as Saudi Arabia.

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, described the event as "very encouraging," and highlighted the Syrian and Iranian participation. He said: "Two years ago, most Arab states were extremely sceptical about whether there was any chance at all that Iraq - after the military action - would be able to come together to start to form a secure, prosperous and coherent state. I think most of them have been relieved by the progress."

The al-Qa'ida group in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, denounced the meeting, saying: "The enemies of God gather at the conference in Brussels to destroy Iraq, not to build it."

State of the nation

* 78 per cent of households in the country have an unreliable electricity supply; in Baghdad, the figure rises to 92 per cent.

* 37 per cent of urban households and only 4 per cent of rural ones have a sewage connection.

* 61 per cent of Iraqi households have access to a safe and stable drinking water supply, but 28 per cent of these experience daily problems with that supply.

* 5 per cent of households have been damaged by military activity; the figure rises to 8 per cent in the north of the country.

* Only 52 per cent of urban households are accessible by paved road; the figure drops to one in 10 in rural areas.

* 31 per cent of males over 15 are unemployed.

* Almost a quarter of children between the ages of six months and five years suffer from malnutrition.

* More young people today are illiterate in Iraq than in previous generations.

* Just 83 per cent of boys and 79 per cent of girls of school age are enrolled in primary school.

Iraqi planning ministry/UNDP, May 2005