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Delegates at UN-Iraq conference urge support for Iraq (Roundup)

Stockholm - Efforts by Iraq's government to increase security for its citizens were welcomed Thursday by speakers including UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon at a UN-Iraq conference, but major concerns remained - including the plight of refugees.

Ban Ki-moon said 'notable progress' had been made in security, political and economic areas, but cautioned that 'Iraqi people continue to suffer from acts of terrorism, sectarian violence and criminality.'

However, there were signs of 'hope,' he said and that 'Iraq is stepping back from the abyss we feared most. Nevertheless the situation remains fragile.'

Late Thursday, delegates from some 90 countries were to issue a declaration on the follow-up to the International Compact for Iraq (ICI) launched a year ago at a summit in Egypt.

The ICI process aimed at increasing international support for Iraq's commitment to improve security, human rights and economic development.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his country had 'achieved progress', and remained 'optimistic'. He called on 'sister countries to forgive debts' and stated Baghdad was committed to tackle corruption.

Debt relief was also mentioned by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said the US 'would encourage other countries' to write off their debts like Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Russia had since the ICI process was launched a year ago.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh later told reporters that 'we are waiting for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait as well.'

The International Monetary Fund has estimated that Iraq in 2007- 2008 settled 23 billion dollars of its 75-billion-dollar external debt burden.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his country had provided a soft loan to Iraq and signed contracts to provide electricity, and underlined Iran's participation in regional efforts to support the people of Iraq and al-Maliki's government.

In his opening remarks, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt underlined the importance that neighbouring countries have had in hosting the flow of refugees from Iraq, and cited the need to let 'the UN take the lead in our engagement with Iraq.'

Barham Sali, deputy Iraqi prime minister, told delegates that Baghdad 'has allocated 195 million dollars to help with the settlement of displaced people back to their homes.'

Expressing his government's optimism Sali ended his statement that he was 'hoping to meet you for the next annual review in Baghdad.'

Reinfeldt also highlighted the role of the European Union in Iraq as did Slovenia's Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the six-month rotating EU presidency.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband noted the improvement in security in Iraq - his cabinet colleague, Defence Secretary Des Browne had been able to walk freely during a recent unannounced visit to Basra.

Shortly before the opening of the conference, Reinfeldt met with Rice, who cited progress in terms of security in Iraq at a joint news conference with Reinfeldt.

'The Iraqis themselves are making considerable progress toward the achievement of an Iraq that is more stable, that has functioning institutions and where security is improving,' Rice said.

It was not a donor conference, Rice said, adding that Iraqis 'do need large infusions of practical assistance, project support' and help to build up its police forces and justice system.

Rice also gave credit to Sweden, which since 2003 has received some 40,000 refugees from Iraq.

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