SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – The coming Palestinian elections provide an opportunity to revive the Middle East peace process, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said Tuesday, adding that Israel is ready for such a step.
Annan spoke at an international conference on Iraq that has turned its focus to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The U.N. chief held a side meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (search) and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (search).
The talks focused on the Jan. 9 elections for a Palestinian Authority president to replace the late Yasser Arafat (search), Annan said.
Powell, who met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders before flying here Monday, had assured them that President Bush intended to advance the peace process in his second term.
Israeli leaders, who boycotted Arafat, told Powell they would ease travel restrictions on Palestinians to facilitate voting.
"We are all encouraged," Annan said, adding the U.N. would provide election monitors.
"There is an opportunity to move ahead with the road map," Annan said, referring to the peace plan sponsored by the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. "We believe the Israeli government is also ready."
The host of the Iraq conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit (search), said the Israeli-Arab conflict was as much a threat to the region as the insurgency in Iraq.
"Efforts to achieve stability in Iraq cannot be separated from strenuous efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East," Aboul Gheit said in an opening address.
The conference, which began Monday and ends Tuesday at this Red Sea resort, brought together amid tight security representatives of nations that opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq but who recognize the need to contribute to its reconstruction.
"It is a world duty to save Iraq from its tragic situation," Aboul Gheit said.
The 20 nations attending the conference are expected to endorse the interim Iraqi government's campaign against insurgents. Their draft resolution also calls on all parties to avoid violence against civilians and excessive use of force.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (search) said his government was committed to holding "full, free and fair elections across the country for the first time in our history."
Referring to the recent campaign against insurgent strongholds in cities such as Fallujah and Mosul, Zebari said: "We must guarantee that all sectors of the Iraqi electorate have an equal chance to cast their vote free from intimidation, terror and fear spread by an extreme minority — a lethal mix of Saddamists, foreign terrorists and criminal gangs."
The conference has steered away from setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S.-led forces from Iraq — despite a push by France and some Arab countries. The draft communique, though, does say the mandate of foreign forces is "not open-ended."
The draft also says the interim Iraqi government should meet its opponents to try to persuade them to take part in the general elections on Jan. 30.
Iraq also has said it will ask neighboring states to tighten their borders against the infiltration of would-be insurgents and to share information about groups supporting the militants.
In an interview with the AP on Monday, interim Iraqi leader Ayad Allawi (search) said neighboring countries had not pulled their weight against the insurgency.
In Baghdad, Allawi also dismissed some Sunni groups who advocate boycotting the election as "the eventual losers," and said his government was determined to hold the balloting on time.
But the draft communique indicates the leaders believe Allawi's government could do more to get the opposition on board.
One opposition group, the Association of Muslim Scholars (search), called for a boycott within hours of Sunday announcement of the election date. The Sunni faction also dismissed the conference in Egypt as "an attempt to legitimize the occupation."