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NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin lobbied Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday to support Russian energy investment, as the oil arm of gas export monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM) pushes for a foothold in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Gazprom Neft (SIBN.MM) is still interested in Kurdistan's oil, company sources and the province's spokesman said, rebutting reports it had frozen projects in the Iraqi province.
Putin, a vocal opponent of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, called for Russia to strengthen its presence in the OPEC oil producer state at talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at his residence near Moscow.
"Our companies are boosting their activities in Iraq - the whole list of our large energy companies," Putin said. "I hope their work will develop step by step and we are very much hoping for your support, Mr Prime Minister."
Russia's second-largest crude producer LUKOIL (LKOH.MM) is developing the vast West Qurna-2 oil, while mid-sized Bashneft (BANE.MM) is teaming up with Britain's Premier Oil PLC (PMO.L) after they won the right to tap oil in the Middle East country.
LUKOIL bought Norway's Statoil (STL.OL) out of their partnership in West Qurna-2 in March, and CEO Vagit Alekperov said he would be open to taking on board a new partner.
"We bought it, 100 pct, if there is a good offer we can sell part of it, so far we feel comfortable with it," Alekperov told Reuters. Asked if there was an offer in the works, he said "at the moment no, only outline ideas."
Russia signed $4.2 billion worth of arms deals with Iraq on Tuesday.
Late on Tuesday, the International Oil Daily cited Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul-Kareem Luaibi as saying Baghdad had received a letter from Gazprom, in which the company said it had frozen its contract with Kurdistan.
Baghdad has been angered by the plans of some international majors, including ExxonMobil (XOM.N), to tap oil and gas in the northern region. The central government says the deals are illegal.
A spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said Gazprom Neft had informed the KRG on Wednesday that it remains committed to its contract in the Kurdistan region.
Sources at Gazprom Neft also knocked down the report.
In August, Gazprom Neft acquired interests in two blocks in Kurdistan.
"Gazprom Neft is still working on these projects. The company keeps its interest in Kurdistan," a Gazprom Neft source told Reuters.
Another source at the company said Gazprom Neft would be able to go ahead with the projects once the Iraqi central government and KRG resolve their differences.
He also said Gazprom Neft management will travel to Kurdistan before year-end to discuss oil development in the province. A company spokeswoman declined to comment.
Gazprom Neft already has a project in Iraq, near the Iranian border, where it expects to produce about 15,000 barrels per day from 2013.
Additional reporting/writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Douglas Busvine and Keiron Henderson