July 22, 2009 / 5:28 PM / 9 years ago

Obama calls for broader U.S. ties with Iraq

* Obama renews U.S. commitment to Iraq

* Maliki calls for lifting U.N. war reparations measure

* Focus of trip is to convince investors Iraq safe

(Updates with fresh quotes, background)

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, July 22 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sketched the outlines of a new U.S.-Iraqi relationship on Wednesday, saying it was time to broaden ties forged during six years of war.

Three weeks after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi towns and cities, Obama and visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were eager to show the future U.S.-Iraqi relationship will emphasize non-military cooperation.

"The United States and Iraq have known difficult times together. Now both of us agree that the bonds forged between Americans and Iraqis in war can pave the way for progress that can be forged in peace," Obama said.

Obama’s comments signaled that his administration wants to turn the page on the war in Iraq as it focuses on the conflict in Afghanistan. He said the United States was on schedule to withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and 130,000 troops still remain to help secure the country and train Iraqi forces. Some 4,300 U.S. soldiers have been killed, tens of thousands of Iraqis have died and millions have been displaced in the past six years.

Standing beside Obama in the White House Rose Garden, Maliki announced plans for a foreign investor conference in October. Oil-rich Iraq desperately needs money to help rebuild the country after years of sanctions, neglect and war.

"All of this comes as a natural reaction to the stability and to the direction of the Iraqi national unity government to provide what is needed for rebuilding ... a country that was destroyed by wars, by dictatorship," Maliki said.

‘NEW OPPORTUNITIES’

The prime minister is touting Iraq’s improved security as an opportunity for foreign firms. But continuing violence undermines his case. Gunmen killed five pilgrims traveling in a bus convoy on Wednesday, a day after bombs exploded across Baghdad, killing 16 people.

While investors are certainly worried about the violence, U.S. officials say they are probably more concerned about whether Iraq’s laws and regulations offer them sufficient legal protection to operate in the country.

"Together, Americans and Iraqis can expand economic cooperation and trade that opens new doors of opportunity," said Obama.

Maliki’s meeting with Obama, his first at the White House, comes at a critical time. Washington and Baghdad want to move toward normalizing ties and away from a relationship dominated by security issues.

The Iraqi prime minister’s weeklong visit to the United States aims to demonstrate Iraq’s independence from Washington, encourage foreign investors to return, and renew pressure for the United Nations to lift punitive war reparations measures.

Obama again urged Maliki to move ahead on national reconciliation. U.S. officials have previously voiced concern about the Shi’ite-led government’s reluctance to reach out to Sunni Arabs and growing tensions with Kurds, but Obama was diplomatic on Wednesday.

"I reiterated my belief that Iraq will be more secure and more successful if there is a place for all Iraqis citizens to thrive, including all of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups," he told reporters.

Iraq is riven by ethnic and sectarian divisions among majority Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds. Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have called on Iraqi leaders during visits there this year to settle potentially explosive disputes from sharing oil revenues to resolving internal boundaries.

Earlier on Wednesday, Maliki was in New York to press the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — to lift measures that require Iraq to pay Kuwait billions of dollars in war reparations for its 1990 invasion. (Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York and David Alexander, Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland in Washington, editing by Alan Elsner)





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