German official's visit highlights Iraq's interest in reaching abroad

BAGHDAD — On the heels of a strong showing for his political party in recent provincial elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is reaching out to industrialized nations in an effort to help turn around his war-torn nation.

"Iraq needs construction. Iraq needs investment. Iraq needs infrastructure," said Maliki's close adviser, Sadiq al Rikabi, who added that another high-ranking European official would arrive in the coming days. "We need to deal with industrialized nations to rebuild Iraq."

The latest in a growing list of countries Iraq has welcomed is Germany. On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, expressing an interest in bolstering ties between the nations as sectarian violence has diminished in the oil-producing country.

According to Maliki's office, Germany opened a "commercial services" office in Baghdad on Tuesday for entrepreneurs who are seeking to expand their businesses in Iraq. During his trip, Steinmeier plans to visit Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region in Iraq's north where Germany plans to open a consulate in its capital of Irbil.

Iraq's oil reserves in the north and the south, the third largest in the world, are certain to lure additional European investors.

Steinmeier's visit Tuesday came a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a historic trip to Iraq, the first time that a French head of state had visited. Sarkozy urged European allies to invest in Iraq because the recent provincial elections — free from serious violence — pointed to significant security gains in the once-conflict-rife country.

In an example of how the two countries plan to strengthen ties, Paris intends to build a new embassy and open consulates in Irbil and in Basra, a province in the south that houses some of Iraq's major oil fields and ports.

In a news conference with Sarkozy, Maliki said that Iraq no longer would succumb to Washington-imposed pressure in bringing about political reform, a slight aimed at Vice President Joe Biden. Biden had said that the U.S. needed to be more hands-on in Iraqi affairs.

The remark, coupled with Sarkozy's visit, suggested that Iraqi leaders could start turning to European nations for assistance rather than the United States. France and Germany opposed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein but unleashed years of sectarian strife.

Observers say that Europe is an attractive business partner because it treads lightly, and the recent visits by European leaders send a message to Washington.

"It is like a call of independence for Iraq to make decisions according to its own interests, rather than to the dictates of international forces," said Haider Hussein al Musawi, a Baghdad-based political analyst.

Musawi added that Europe looked attractive because Iraq's Shiite Muslim Arab majority and large Kurdish minority are wary of developing strong ties with Arab nations because of their Sunni Arab majorities.

"The path that is neither American nor mostly Arab Sunni invokes the least fears in Iraq today," Musawi said.

The Obama administration has pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Despite recent security headway, however, Iraq could still be a tough sell to overseas investors because of its fragile security.

In the past few days, dozens of Shiite Muslim pilgrims have been killed in ghastly roadside bombings and shootings as they took part in a sacred ceremony. The north, where Arab-Kurd relations remain uneasy, is one of the few places that have eluded security gains.

Some of the recent violence could have stemmed from the outcome of the provincial elections Jan. 31. Early tallying showed that the political map had been redrawn: Maliki's party emerged as the comfortable front-runner, his surge in popularity stemming from his government's crackdown on insurgents and militias.

Final election results will be released Thursday.

(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)


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