WASHINGTON - The president's reelection campaign may get an unexpected boost this week from Cairo.
Diplomatic sources tell The New York Sun that President Mubarak is likely to announce today that he is willing to host a regional conference to discuss Iraqi security and the forgiveness of Iraqi debt next month in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The meeting planned for November 21 and 22 could blunt criticism from the Kerry campaign that the president has shunned diplomacy in his effort to stabilize the situation in Iraq.
On the campaign trail and in the debates, Senator Kerry has said that part of his plan for Iraq would be to host a head-of-state summit, inviting Arab and European leaders to discuss their contributions of troops to stabilizing Iraq. Throughout this month's debates, Mr. Kerry consistently repeated that America bore 90% of the costs and casualties of the war.
The Bush campaign has responded that Mr. Kerry's math does not factor in Iraqi forces who have been killed in defending their country, but so far the president has not discussed the initiative of Secretary of State Powell to bring together regional foreign ministers to discuss stability in Iraq.
All of that will likely change this week, however. An assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, William Burns, arrived yesterday in Cairo to discuss the conference and will meet with Mr. Mubarak today. "The announcement from Egypt could come as soon as Wednesday," a State Department official told the Sun yesterday. The Egyptian foreign ministry sent out invitations to regional foreign ministries and foreign ministries from the group of eight industrialized nations over the weekend. The latter group includes France and Germany, two countries Mr. Kerry has said he could persuade to send troops to Iraq.
In an interview this week with USA Today's editorial board, Mr. Powell nearly mocked Mr. Kerry's argument that a conference would persuade other countries to join the fighting in Iraq. "I'm not sure how much broader an international conference others may be talking about, the suggestion being that if only there was an international conference, then perhaps the French and Germans would send troops. Really?" he said.
Topping the agenda for the Americans will be getting countries like Egypt and Jordan to step up training of Iraqi police; persuading Gulf countries to forgive Iraqi debt, and addressing the problem of terrorists crossing into Iraq, primarily from Syria and Iran.
"This conference could be a useful way to develop regional pressure on Syria and Iran," a State Department official said. In August Mr. Burns visited Damascus and said he had productive discussions with President Assad on the issue of Jihadists crossing the border. Diplomatic cables sent from the American embassy in Syria at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom described how Hezbollah was recruiting people to fight the Americans in Iraq from state fairgrounds.
This source said the purpose of the meeting was not an attempt to enlist Arab troops to replace American GIs on the ground. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates, which the State Department is hoping will expand its presence on the ground to perhaps as many as 1,000 soldiers from a 13-man medical unit, there are no plans to try to entice Arab nations to contribute troops to securing Iraq. Mr. Powell worked on such an initiative this summer. An assistant secretary of state, Lincoln Bloomfield, is in the UAE this week to discuss expanding the country's contribution to the multinational force in Iraq.
A spokesman for President Chirac last Tuesday said Mr. Chirac had told Mr. Mubarak that France was hoping to invite groups representing insurgents to the international conference and was seeking to revisit a possible timetable for when American troops would leave Iraq. Earlier this month Crown Prince Abdullah suggested Saudi Arabia would be willing to contribute soldiers to stabilizing Iraq, but only if the soldiers were directly commanded by the United Nations and not the multinational force in Iraq, which is under American command.
"The crown prince's recommendation was useful insofar as it illustrates how much of a problem it is for Arab forces to join the multinational force," a State Department official said. "Notice there were no numbers and a vague recommendation that we pay for it. Does he think Koffi Annan is going to quit his job and command Saudi troops in Iraq?"
One guest at the conference scheduled next month will be a representative from the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose foreign ministry has said it will send an envoy to attend. The presence of Persian diplomats in Egypt may give Mr. Powell an opportunity to discuss other pressing matters. By November 21, the International Atomic Energy is supposed to have a final report on Iran's nuclear program. In a September 29 interview with the Agence France Press, Mr. Powell said he did not have a problem meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, noting that he met with him during regional talks on Afghanistan.