Egyptian foreign minister in landmark Iraq visit

Ahmed Abul Gheit led the first high-level Egyptian delegation to visit Iraq since al Qaeda killed Egypt's envoy to Baghdad in 2005, in the latest sign that the two Arab nations are slowly restoring ties.


Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit made a surprise visit to Iraq on Sunday, the first such trip since 1990, saying it is the right time to expand relations between the two nations.

"We feel it is the proper time to come to Iraq and launch deeper Iraq-Egypt relations," Abul Gheit told reporters after talks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his government is pressing ahead with reconstruction and with establishment of peace and stability and he urged Egypt to help, his office said in a statement.

"After improving security and the successes achieved by our armed forces in the face of terrorists and outlaws, we have to go towards construction," Maliki was quoted as saying.

Maliki called on Egyptian companies "to participate in construction projects and help the reconstruction processes with their expertise and experience in various sectors," the statement said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari said both nations could benefit from strengthened ties and added that Baghdad was looking for help from Cairo to develop Iraq's war-battered infrastructure.

"We can both benefit from our relations and Egypt can also help us with infrastructure and agriculture," Zebari said at a joint news conference with the Egyptian minister.

Abul Gheit, who is being accompanied on the trip by Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi, said he has visited a location for the Egyptian embassy in Baghdad, but did not say when Cairo hopes to open the mission.

Cairo has had no official diplomatic representative in Iraq since the July 2005 abduction and murder by Al-Qaeda of its charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Ihab al-Sharif.

Since February, Cairo has been saying it was ready to send a fact-finding delegation to Baghdad to evaluate security conditions for the opening of an embassy.

Maliki in April appealed to Sunni Arab states to help stabilise Iraq by living up to pledges to forgive his country's debts, erasing war reparations and reopening embassies in Baghdad.

Egypt is the latest Arab country seeking to strengthen ties with Iraq since April when the United States urged its Sunni Arab allies to reopen embassies in Baghdad in a bid to shore up the Maliki government.

Since then Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have named ambassadors to Baghdad and some Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah II, have made surprise visits to Iraq.

Washington's regional foe Syria also named an ambassador to Iraq in September.

The prime minister of Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq 18 years ago, said in September he had accepted an invitation to visit Iraq.

But oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia has said it was waiting for security to improve.

Egyptian diplomat Hani Khallaf will take up his post on Monday as head of the Arab League's mission in Iraq.

The job has been vacant since Moroccan Mukhtar Lamani resigned in January last year citing a lack of "Arab vision" over the conflict in Iraq.

"I will travel to Baghdad tomorrow (Monday) to take up my position as the new head of the Arab League mission in Iraq," he told AFP on Sunday in Cairo, adding that his focus in Iraq will be on national reconciliation.

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