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Progress in Iraq hard to define, hard to measure

Story Highlights

• Goals of conference same as three years ago
• Rice's aides say Arab nations too focused on Sunni vs. Shiite
• Iraq hopes to see much of its debt forgiven
From CNN's Elise Labott
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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (CNN) -- Iraq's neighbors and members of the international community are meeting in this Egyptian seaside resort town to shore up the Iraqi government with financial and diplomatic support, help political reconciliation, boost reconstruction efforts and end the violence.

These are mostly the same goals that a similar group tried to achieve at a summit in 2004. The final summit communique reached three conclusions: The U.S. presence in Iraq is not open-ended, the Iraqi government needed to do more to include more political parties (i.e. Sunnis) in the political process and more efforts needed to be made to curb the violence.

Three years later Iraq is still embroiled in violence, Sunnis still feel alienated under the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and U.S. troops are still there.

What's different is that sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are higher, and Iraq's neighbors are increasingly frustrated and concerned that al-Maliki has not made progress toward reconciliation.

Also different now is that dozens of countries, including Iran, will be sitting down with Iraqi leaders and that Iraq will have a say in its own international affairs. That, the United States says, is a success.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is urging Arab states to put pressure on key political players in Iraq, arguing that the stability of the entire region is at stake. (Watch what Rice hopes to accomplish Video)

"The most important message that I will be delivering is that a stable, unified and democratic Iraq is an Iraq that will be a pillar of stability in the Middle East," she told reporters ahead of the conference, which begins on Thursday.

Iraq will be looking to nearly 60 countries gathered to endorse the International Compact for Iraq, a five-year plan that grants Iraq international support if it makes economic and political reforms.

In addition to pledges of economic support, the Iraqi goal is to leave Sharm el-Sheikh with a majority of its debt forgiven.

The major political reforms Iraq has to undertake are the same steps the U.S. has been pushing Iraqis to make for years: constitutional reform, legislation dealing with distribution of Iraq's oil resources and relaxing "de-Baathification" laws, which banned members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party from taking part in public service.

In Washington, where Democrats and several Republicans are fed up with the lack of progress in Iraq, the word is "benchmarks." That is, deliver to the Iraqis consequences for failing to show tangible progress in curbing the violence.

But most analysts here say only a U.S. withdrawal -- which President Bush has refused to consider -- and its likely dire consequences will force the Iraqis to act.

Bush, Rice and their aides working on Iraq say, too, that U.S. patience is not unlimited.

Arab neighbors that are offering some financial support for Iraq's economic programs are including benchmarks. For now, they seem unwilling to offer the kind of political support the U.S. is looking for without signs that al-Maliki is making genuine efforts to include Sunnis in the political process.

Rice aides say Arab states don't get it, that they don't have a sense of the very real progress being made in Iraq because they are looking at the situation through a Sunni vs. Shiite lens.

Rice's aides say they hope this conference will debunk the myth that the al-Maliki government is not committed to political reconciliation and convince others that it is taking steps to unite the country's warring factions.

The discussions on Iraq's future may just become a sideshow to the diplomatic dance between the U.S. and Iran on possible direct talks. But having Iran at the conference is important.

The U.S. is concerned about what it calls Iran's meddling in Iraq: aiding militias, providing explosives that kill U.S. troops and fueling sectarian tensions.

Washington joins Iraq's Sunni neighbors in concern about Iran's position as a powerful Shiite force in the region that might soon also have nuclear weapons.

Rice has said that if she bumps into Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, she will "see what the encounter brings." Reports from Iran say Tehran could be open to talks with Washington.

Improved diplomacy is unlikely to end the bitter feud between Washington and Tehran, but it would enable the two sides to work more closely on Iraq, as they did in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

That could be a formula that helps to break Iraq's political deadlock and avoid another Iraq conference with identical goals three years from now.


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The continuing role of U.S. soldiers in Iraq will be one topic of this week's meeting.

Behind the Scenes

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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