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UAE restores diplomatic ties with Iraq

The Iraqi government has announced that the Arab United Emirates will name an ambassador to Baghdad. The news came during the Emirates' foreign minister's visit to Iraq, the first since 2003.

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Iraq said on Thursday that the United Arab Emirates will name an ambassador to Baghdad within days, in the first such move by an US allied state in the Gulf in several years.

"The UAE will announce the nomination of an ambassador in the next few days, and will choose a new site for their embassy," said a statement from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office.

Maliki's announcement came during a landmark visit by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nayahan, the first by such a high-ranking official from an Arab country in the Gulf since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Washington has been pressing its Sunni Arab allies to show more support for the Shiite-led government by sending ambassadors to Iraq.

The UAE withdrew its most senior diplomat, a charge d'affaires, from Baghdad in May 2006 after one of its diplomats was kidnapped by Islamist militants and held for two weeks before being released.

The UAE embassy has "not been fully functional" since, an Emirati official said, while insisting this has not meant a diplomatic break.

Sheikh Abdullah, on a previously unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital, held talks with Maliki as well as his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari and President Jalal Talabani.

"Sheikh Abdullah's visit to Baghdad is the first by a foreign minister from any Gulf Cooperation Council country," the Emirati official told AFP, referring to the oil-rich group which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

At an international meeting on Iraq in Stockholm last week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice encouraged "everyone to increase their diplomatic, economic, social and cultural engagement with the people of Iraq.

"We especially urge Iraq's neighbours and friends to strengthen these ties through official visits to Iraq, the reopening of embassies and consulates and the appointment of ambassadors," Rice said.

The Sunni-ruled Arab monarchies of the region have been reluctant to upgrade ties with Iraq, not just because of insecurity in the country but also because of its Shiite-led government's perceived tilt toward Shiite non-Arab Iran.

A US official said last week that Arab states have been encouraged by the recent crackdown on Shiite militias Maliki, himself a Shiite, and motivated by a need to check Iranian-backed power plays in Lebanon.

Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain are also taking steps toward establishing a permanent diplomatic presence in Iraq.

"The UAE has been offering a lot of support to Iraq since the war," the UAE official said.

As to the question of Iraq's debt, the US State Department has said it has been reduced by 66.5 billion dollars over the past three years, including a total of 42.3 billion dollars cancelled by Paris Club members.

US Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said last week that 50 billion to 80 billion dollars remain, with a "significant majority" owed to Arab countries.

Iraq's debt to the UAE is estimated at around four billion dollars.

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