April 21, 2008 / 10:12 AM / 12 years ago

Arab nations non-committal on Iraq debt, embassies

MANAMA (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed to secure firm commitments on debt relief for Iraq or greater Arab diplomatic representation in Baghdad after a meeting of Arab states on Monday.

Iraq's Foreign Affairs minister Hoshiyar Zebari gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad April 13, 2008. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud

But Iraq would now routinely attend some Gulf Arab meetings, which signaled Baghdad’s reintegration into regional politics after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Rice said after a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Jordan and Egypt.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, who attended part of the Bahrain meeting after Rice pressed Arab ministers to invite him, warmly embraced his Saudi counterpart and said the atmosphere among neighbors had improved.

“A number of countries around the table talked about their desire of having permanent representation in Iraq,” Rice told a news conference. “I do believe that it’s a process which will move forward,” she said.

Arab states have no permanent representatives in Baghdad and a senior U.S. official who sat in on the meetings said there were no firm commitments yet for opening up embassies.

“But there seemed to be a greater disposition towards it,” he told reporters traveling with Rice.

Washington, which accuses Iran of stoking violence in Iraq, has long urged Sunni Arab states to beef up embassies in Baghdad as a sign of support for the Shi’ite-led government and also to counter Iranian influence.

Iraq is a mostly Arab nation while Iran’s roots are Persian. Both countries, however, have majority Shi’ite populations.

Arab ministers pushed Zebari on why Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to visit Iraq this year. “He answered he was embarrassed that he (Ahmadinejad) was the only head of state to have visited,” said the U.S. official, adding Arab leaders had been invited but not come.

“I think the atmosphere is much better and we have positive commitments from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt to reopen their embassies, to name ambassadors,” Zebari told Reuters in Bahrain.

“Regarding the danger, we now have over 45 foreign missions working under difficult conditions. But it is doable.”

FOREIGN DEBT

Egypt, whose ambassador to Iraq was killed there in 2005, has said it will not send an envoy until security improves. Many Arab diplomats have stayed away since a suicide car bomber attacked the Jordanian embassy in 2003, killing 17 people.

Zebari also urged Arab countries to forgive their share of Iraq’s outstanding foreign debt, saying the issue would be raised at a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors in Kuwait on Tuesday.

Rice will join Arab nations and other G8 countries for the meeting, which will back Iraq’s drive to disarm militias and urge more embassies to open in Iraq, according to a draft of the final communique obtained by Reuters.

Rice has said she will push hard for Arab neighbors to “meet their obligations” and step up financial and diplomatic support that has not been forthcoming since the 2003 invasion.

About $66.5 billion of Iraq’s debt has been forgiven, with the bulk of that by the Paris Club members, according to State Department estimates this month. Of the estimated $56 billion to $80 billion debt that remains, more than half is owed to Gulf countries, the department said.

“Debt relief is a standard request for Iraq. The foreign non-Arab countries have forgiven Iraq its debts so, of course, Iraq will expect from its brothers to do more,” said Zebari.

“Still they have not yet given any firm commitment.”

Kuwait’s al Qabas newspaper said on Monday Kuwait may suggest trading in Iraq’s outstanding debts for oil.

Writing by Lin Noueihed and Sue Pleming; Editing by Jon Boyle

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