Iraq PM in Cairo to improve ties with Egypt

AP News
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Posted: Dec 20, 2009 11:58 AM

Iraq's prime minister opened a landmark visit to Egypt on Sunday in what aides described as an ambitious attempt to improve relations with one of the Arab world's most powerful players.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's last visit to Egypt was in 2007 as part of an international conference to discuss his war-ravaged country's future. But this visit was designed specifically for meetings with Egyptian officials.

A statement posted on the prime minister's Web site following his arrival in Egypt expressed al-Maliki's happiness at moving forward with a new phase of cooperation between the two countries.

The trip appeared intended to drum up support in the Arab world, where Iraq's Shiite-led government and its close ties to Iran are often viewed with suspicion by its mostly Sunni neighbors.

Al-Maliki appears particularly eager for better relations with Egypt, an influential U.S. ally and host of the Arab League. Relations, already strained during the reign of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, deteriorated further after Egypt's ambassador to Baghdad was kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida in 2005.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the post-Saddam Hussein government struggled to build ties with other Arab nations. Several have since named ambassadors to Baghdad, including Egypt, which appointed a new envoy in June.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the Associated Press before the Sunday visit that the prime minister would be meeting with government officials and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, during his two-day visit.

"The visit to Egypt is a political one which will enhance good bilateral relations between the two countries," al-Dabbagh said.

Al-Dabbagh said the visit would include signing of many "agreements and memorandums of understanding" but did not elaborate. Al-Maliki is expected to return to Iraq on Monday.

As violence has subsided in Iraq, the country has been trying to attract international investors to help rebuild after years of violence and neglect.

The Iraqi prime minister also renewed calls for Egyptian companies and expertise to invest in Iraq's provinces. Tens of thousands of Egyptians used to work in Iraq, but the vast majority left after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 2003-U.S. led invasion of Iraq.

Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo said that al-Maliki likely believes he has a better chance at mending ties with the Arabs through Egypt, rather than Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are seen as much more aligned with Iraq's Sunni parties, while Egypt is seen as more moderate.

"Al-Maliki's chances with Saudi Arabia are so weak, he could not approach Saudi Arabia so he wants to penetrate the Arab rejection shield of his government through his visit to Egypt," he said.