Iraq to provide gas to EU

( dpa ) - Iraq's oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, was in Brussels on Thursday to discuss plans to supply the European Union with natural gas from its vast Ekas field.

The minister met the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and was later due to meet Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

Talks centred on plans to transport natural gas from the Ekas field in southern Iraq to the EU via the Arab Gas Pipeline, which when completed will connect Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, officials said.

The gas would then reach the heart of Europe through the planned Nabucco pipeline, which is to run from Turkey to Austria via Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.

The EU currently relies heavily on natural gas from Russia and is eager to diversify its suppliers.

" Iraq is committed to meet the EU's energy needs," al-Shahristani said after talks with Ferrero-Waldner.

For its part, the EU is providing Iraq with aid - 76 million euros (113 million dollars) have been allocated for 2008 - and helping it builds up its civil institutions by providing experts and training.

Iraq has suffered from a shortage of professionals and intellectuals since the US-led invasion, the minister said.

The EU and Iraq are currently engaged in negotiations over a Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which officials hope will be completed in the coming months.

A third round of talks was held on November 27-29.

Officials said the two sides had used the latest round of talks to close the TCA's energy chapter.

The EU-Iraq TCA would be the first since the conflict that ousted former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Its enforcement is seen as a precursor to Iraq's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Total trade between Iraq and the EU for 2006 is estimated at around 6.3 billion euros. The EU is Iraq's second-largest trading partner after the US.

The balance of trade is overwhelmingly in favour of Iraq, which exports about 5 billion euros worth of oil to the EU.

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