Jordan's King Abdullah makes first visit to post-Saddam Iraq

BAGHDAD — On Monday, King Abdullah II of Jordan became the first Arab head of state to visit Iraq since Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in 2003.

Iraqi officials heralded the brief and previously unannounced visit as a sign that their Arab neighbors finally were shedding their fear of a government that they'd seen as religiously and ethnically divided.

"Our neighbors have started to realize and recognize that Iraq is on the road to recovery," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. "Their wait-and-see attitude and hesitancy has gone. This is a national unity government."

The visit by the Jordanian monarch is a major step for the Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government. Iraq has been largely isolated from its mostly Sunni Muslim Arab neighbors as violence skyrocketed and the influence of Shiite Iran became more pronounced. The United States has been urging Sunni Arab nations, including key ally Saudi Arabia, to upgrade relations with Iraq's government to counter Iranian influence.

With a drop in violence, the landmark visit by King Abdullah could encourage other heads of states to come to Iraq.

As soon as the king landed, he was rushed into a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Zebari, the two deputy prime ministers and other senior government officials to discuss "bilateral relations." The top issue on the agenda was Jordan's oil needs.

"In just a few hours, we didn't launch into deep discussions," Zebari conceded, but he added: "We discussed how economic relations could flourish between us. Jordan has a key interest and strategic relationship with Iraq."

Abdullah's visit was agreed on in June when Maliki visited Jordan.

At that time, Maliki agreed to extend for three years an oil deal in which Jordan could import 100,000 barrels a day at a discount. Jordan depends on Iraq for a large portion of its oil needs, and the staunchly pro-Western kingdom is under growing economic pressure from rising oil prices, an influx of Iraqi refugees and its own growing population.

A release from the Royal Hashemite Court in Jordan said the meeting was intended to strengthen relations between the nations and address Jordan's "need for oil."

"On his part, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, welcomed His Majesty's visit to his country, describing it as a progressive positive step that enhances the relations between Jordan and Iraq on the one hand, and a prologue to enhance Iraq's relations with the other Arab countries," the release said.

Jordan now joins other Arab nations who've named ambassadors to Iraq. But no Arab nation has reopened an embassy in the county. Egypt was the final Arab nation to close its diplomatic mission in 2005, when the Egyptian envoy was kidnapped and killed.

Abdullah's visit was announced weeks ago and a date was set, but the king's visit was postponed because of security concerns. Iraq had planned to give the monarch a state welcome but instead the king arrived and left with no fanfare. The announcement of his visit came as he boarded a plane to leave Iraq. Abdullah's security detail requested the secretive nature of the visit, Zebari said.

The Sunni monarch's visit was in stark contrast to the visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this year.

Ahmadinejad announced his visit and was welcomed on a red carpet, did a series of news conferences and drove through Baghdad to visit a revered Shiite shrine. He then boasted about the visit by poking fun at President Bush, who arrives in Iraq unannounced and informs the world of his trip upon his departure.