United Arab Emirates to name ambassador to Baghdad

The United Arab Emirates said Thursday it would name an ambassador to Baghdad in the coming days, making it the first Arab country to restore a full diplomatic mission to Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster.

Many countries in the region have diplomatic offices in Baghdad but only Iran and Turkey have ambassadors, the AP reported.

Washington has pushed Iraq's neighbors to restore ties with the war-torn country, but security fears and mistrust of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad have prevented many of the Mideast's Sunni Muslim-led governments from doing so.

"We will hold talks to name the ambassador in the coming few days," the UAE foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said Thursday on a visit to Baghdad.

"We also hope that as soon as possible - and I am talking here about a few weeks - we will see an active Emirates Embassy in Baghdad," he said at a news conference.

The UAE withdrew its ambassador to Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and after one of its diplomats was kidnapped and later released.

Sunni militant groups like al-Qaida in Iraq, mistrustful of Iraq's Shiite government, have warned Arab states not to open embassies in Baghdad. The capital's first major car bomb of the war struck the Jordanian Embassy, killing 19 people.

Diplomats from Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan all have been either killed, wounded or kidnapped in Iraq.

The U.S. has sought to blunt fears among Sunni Arab countries like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia over Iran, the largest Shiite Muslim nation, which has been expanding its influence inside Iraq - also a majority Shiite country.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chided his Arab "brothers" at an April conference of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait, saying he found it "difficult to explain why diplomatic exchange has not taken place."

"Many foreign countries have kept their diplomatic missions in Baghdad and did not make security excuses," al-Maliki said at the time.

Kuwait has said it is scouting possible sites for an embassy in Baghdad's U.S.-guarded Green Zone. Kuwait withdrew its ambassador from Iraq when Saddam invaded its tiny oil-rich neighbor in 1990, sparking the first Gulf War.

Saudi Arabia announced in September that it would open a Baghdad embassy "soon," but its foreign minister, Prince Saudi al-Faisal, then said in April that security conditions were not yet right. But he underlined that the lack of an embassy was not a sign of reservations about Baghdad's government.

Thursday's announcement was the strongest sign yet of tides turning toward regional acceptance of al-Maliki's Shiite regime, backed by Washington.

"The regional countries needed some time to understand the new Iraq, which has undergone a big change," Al Nahyan said.

Al-Maliki's office issued a statement quoting the premier as saying he hoped the UAE minister's visit "will be a starting point to enhance cooperation between the two countries, especially in the economic and investment levels." He also called on Emirati companies to invest in Iraq.

Iraq harbors at least $67 billion in foreign debt - most of it owed to fellow Arab countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

Last year, Saudi Arabia announced it would forgive the portion of Iraq's debt it holds, but the Iraqi government has said it has so far failed to do so. American officials have urged patience, saying debt relief takes time.

"The debt issue worries the Iraqi government ... but I can say that it is a minor one if we look at relations in a broader view," Al Nahyan told reporters.

Meanwhile, Iraq's Industry and Minerals Ministry said Thursday it would open 22 state-run companies to outside investment.

Deputy Minister Adel Karim told reporters Iraq is looking for investors to rehabilitate and manage industrial plants according to production-sharing agreements. The companies are spread over five fields: engineering, reconstruction, textiles, chemical and petrochemical and food and medicine.

Investors have until July 10 to submit their proposals, Karim said.

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