BAGHDAD: Egypt sent its foreign minister to Iraq for the first time in nearly two decades, saying it is the right time to expand relations between the two nations, in a sign of growing Arab acceptance of the country s Shia-led government.
We feel it is the proper time to come to Iraq and launch deeper Iraq-Egypt relations, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters after talks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Sunday his first visit was aimed at helping Iraq face its many challenges, including extremism, violence and sectarian hatred.
And we hope that peace and security will prevail in Iraq, Aboul Gheit said. He told reporters Egypt was ready to open a new embassy and help with reconstruction of Iraq s oil industry.
It was the first visit to Iraq by an Egyptian foreign minister since 1990, when President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and his regime was largely shunned by Arab governments.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri 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.
Aboul 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.
Egypt’s last ambassador to Iraq was abducted then executed in 2005. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility of the execution.
The United States has been urging the mostly Sunni-run Arab countries to shore up relations with Shia-led Iraq as a counterweight to the influence of Shia-dominated Iran. But the Arabs were reluctant during the height of Shia-Sunni fighting, which receded last year after the US troop buildup.
In recent months, leaders of Jordan and Lebanon have visited Iraq, along with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, which has sent an ambassador. Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia has remained on the sidelines, saying it was waiting until security improves.
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.
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.
Aboul Gheit s visit was noteworthy because of Egypt s traditional role as a leading Arab state and host of the Arab League.
Egypt has lost a good citizen on Iraqi soil, Aboul Gheit said. This has kept us a little bit away on the official level.
US officials are anxious for Iraq to bolster its ties to the Arab world as Washington prepares do draw down its 140,000 troops next year. US and Iraqi officials are negotiating a security deal with the Iraqis that they say would see the last American troops leave the country by the end of 2011.
Although violence is down more than 80 percent from early 2007 levels, US military commanders warn that security gains are not irreversible because Sunni and Shia extremists have been battered but not defeated.
Those fears were underscored by the carnage in Mosul, the third-largest city where US and Iraqi forces have been trying to months to drive out Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups.
American troops came under heavy gunfire after entering a house early Sunday looking for a suspected insurgent, the US military said in a statement.
As US soldiers returned fire, a man inside the house detonated a suicide vest, the statement added.
Five terrorists as well as three women and three children were killed, according to the statement. Two other children, including one who was injured, were found near the building and moved to safety, the military said. A weapons cache was later found inside.
No American casualties were reported.
This is just another tragic example of how Al-Qaeda in Iraq hides behind innocent Iraqis, US military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll said.
Iraqi police officials in Mosul said all 11 of the dead were family members, including a seven-year-old boy. The police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information,
Hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to give information to media, said most of those who died in the Mosul raid appeared to have been killed by the exploding vest and not by gunfire.
Still, some Mosul residents blamed the Americans.
Most of the Mosul residents live in fear because of such raids conducted by US forces, and even sometimes the Iraqi forces, said Thaier Ahmed, a 32-year-old teacher. It is a horrible incident that has led to the killing of innocent people, including children.
A 35-year-old government worker, who identified himself only by his nickname Abu Tiba, said the raid raised questions whether the blood of Iraqis is worth nothing to the US Army.
Later in Mosul, gunmen opened fire on mourners in a funeral tent, killing four people and wounding three, said Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
The attack occurred in the city s Zanjili neighborhood where Al-Qaeda operates. Four Iraqi employees of a television station were kidnapped and killed in the area last month.
Also in Mosul, a secondary school teacher, who was an ethnic Turkomen, was shot to death near his house Sunday, a police officer said. Gunmen also entered a Mosul butcher shop, shot the owner dead and wounded his son, police said. -Agencies