Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Old Europe reaches out to new Iraq

By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer Robert H. Reid, Associated Press Writer Tue Feb 17, 3:39 pm ET BAGHDAD – Old Europe is reaching out to the new Iraq. Germany's foreign minister met Tuesday with Iraqi leaders in the latest high-level visit by a major Western nation that refused to take part in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but is now looking for ties and lucrative contracts. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the first German foreign minister to come to Iraq in more than 20 years, arrived one week after Nicolas Sarkozy visited Baghdad, the French president calling on other European countries to follow his lead "to support the peace." Iraqi leaders seem eager to cement their relations with Germany and France partly to avoid the appearance of being puppets of the United States — which at any rate is preparing to withdraw its troops, many of whom worked on infrastructure projects such as rebuilding bridges and roads. Steinmeier, who met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior officials, told reporters that Germany wants to "extend a hand to the new Iraq." "We have seen in the last months important successes in stabilizing the country," he said. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the visit showed both countries were eager to resume their "historical relations." "We believe that the situation in Iraq has reached a good phase, and thus there is international confidence in the stability of this country," Zebari told reporters after his talks with Steinmeier. Those upbeat comments were a far cry from the acrimony of six years ago, when France and Germany spearheaded opposition to the U.S.-led invasion, dividing Europe and damaging relations between Washington and some of its closest European allies. At the time, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld scoffed at the European critics, branding them "Old Europe" in contrast to a vigorous "New Europe" — former Soviet bloc nations such as Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic which supported the invasion. Over the years, the heated rhetoric has cooled. New governments have taken power in France and Germany. And Iraq's own leadership has gained new legitimacy with the decline in violence and recent provincial elections that took place without major attacks. Last month, the German foreign minister wrote in an open letter to President Barack Obama, who also opposed the war, that Germany was ready to help "the people of Iraq" create "a stable and democratic state." The United States has encouraged other countries to step up their efforts to help rebuild Iraq, as the U.S. military role in this country winds down. The U.S. must withdraw its troops by the end of 2011 according to a security agreement signed with Baghdad last year. Obama's administration is considering plans to accelerate the withdrawal to shift military resources to Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and a resurgent Taliban are challenging the U.S.-backed Afghan government. For their part, the Germans are eager to cash in on millions of dollars in lucrative contracts in a country which has some of the world's largest petroleum reserves. Steinmeier arrived with representatives of German companies and cultural institutions. The Germans hope to establish an economic office in Baghdad, with a branch in the northern city of Irbil, the capital of Iraq's self-governing Kurdish region. "The office will contribute to reviving the once-intensive economic relations between Germany and Iraq," German Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said in a statement. "The office also will serve to overcome the economic consequences of the war in Iraq and contribute to the country's economic rebuilding." Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the two sides also signed agreements on scientific and cultural cooperation, technical and training assistance for the Iraqi Electricity Ministry and to build a German-Iraqi university in Iraq. "The visit is a turning point in relations with Germany," said al-Dabbagh. International support comes at a critical time for Iraq, which is only now emerging from nearly six years of vicious war. But U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that the improvements in security are fragile because major power-sharing issues between rival religious and ethnic groups remain unresolved. As part of the security agreement between the Americans and the Iraqis, the U.S. military is transferring the thousands of detainees to Iraqi government control. A U.S. spokesman, Maj. Neal Fisher, said Tuesday the number of detainees held by the U.S. in Iraq has dropped from a peak of more than 26,000 in 2007 to 14,560. He said the military has been releasing 1,500 detainees a month — 50 a day. "At this rate we anticipate concluding our efforts by the end of 2009 or early 2010," Fisher said. Of those detainees still in custody, Fisher said 2,453 have either been convicted or are being tried. The U.S. has built a new prison in Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, that it plans to turn over to the Iraqi government by the end of the year. ___

No comments: