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World opinion of Iraq seeming to change

27 September, 2006

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UNITED NATIONS --Iraq is getting more respect now that it has an elected government, fully participating in dozens of meetings at the U.N. General Assembly. "Now it's business," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

As the annual meeting of the world's leaders heads to its finale on Wednesday, the Iraqi minister said that since he started coming here in 2003 he's never been busier.

"This is a good sign because Iraq really -- despite the bad news, the negative news coming out of Baghdad -- is moving steadily toward a functional state," he said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press.

Zebari recalled that as foreign minister first in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and then in the transitional government, there would be "nice words, nice exchanges" on the fringes of the General Assembly and other international meeting. But since Iraq's elections and the selection in April of a constitutional government, "the days of diplomatic niceties" are over.

With a smile of satisfaction, Zebari said, "it's more business we are in fact discussing," and he reeled off examples.

On the sidelines of the General Assembly, he said, "we had a good meeting of Iraq's neighboring countries ... and we agreed on some important steps."

First, Zebari said, Iraq demanded that future meetings of Iraq's neighboring countries had to be "with the full consent, approval and need of the Iraqi government."

"Second, we demanded that the next meeting of Iraq's neighboring countries take place in Baghdad, as a sign to stand with the Iraqi people, to show solidarity and support, as the Arab foreign ministers did when they went to Beirut during the (Israel-Hezbollah) war. ... And they approved it, which was a good thing," he said.

At a meeting with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, attended by Iraqi President Jalil Talabani, Zebari said "we had a very frank, open discussion about how to go forward."

The Iraqis told Moallem "if you want to improve relations and show goodwill, ... one of the simplest steps is for you to come and visit Baghdad ... because in the past three years, almost each and every Iraqi official has visited you, and no Syrian officials have come to Baghdad," the foreign minister said. "It will help smooth, let's say, relations, and we will welcome you. You'll be respected in Iraq by all Iraqis."

What was the Syrian minister's response? "He said he accepted the idea, I think, and we will wait to see when that takes place," Zebari said.

At every meeting, Zebari said, he delivered the same appeal -- to help stabilize the country and end the surge in sectarian violence.

Iraq is "the key to stability in the region," he said. "That's why we have been calling on all the parties, all the states, that it is in your interest to help us to stabilize the situation. Failure in Iraq will affect you directly." He said a security vacuum in Iraq would not be to anyone's benefit.

Zebari accused some of Iraq's neighbors -- though he did not name them -- of fomenting violence and terrorist acts, and of putting short-term interests and a desire to settle "certain scores" ahead of long-term peace and stability in the region.

Interior ministers of Iraq and its neighboring countries recently met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where they signed a security protocol to coordinate and exchange information and set up hot lines, he said.

Despite this agreement, Zebari said, "I would say unfortunately, some of our neighbors have not been helpful."

On the eve of the General Assembly, 31 countries attended a meeting of the Compact for Iraq, a five-year plan to ensure Iraq's government has funds to survive and enact key political and economic reforms.

Zebari called it "an important international event" but said that unless Iraq improves security and accelerates political reconciliation, "it would be extremely difficult to attract foreign investments or foreign companies."

"That is the challenge -- and the government is committed to do that," he said.

Nonetheless, Zebari said, despite the instability and violence, the new Iraqi government has taken other actions that demonstrate its authority.

"We wanted to help the Jordanian government and economy, so we signed an oil agreement to provide them with crude oil at preferential prices to support the Jordanian need for fuel," he said. "This really was an eye-opener to many countries in the region that despite everything we are going through, Iraq is still capable, able to help."

When the Israel-Hezbollah war began in Lebanon in July, Zebari said Iraq donated $35 million in emergency aid to the Lebanese government, an act which "embarrassed many other Arab countries to raise their bid."

Iraq has also reached agreements with Turkey to boost trade and open new border crossings, he said, and will sign a trade agreement with the European Union.

"Even with the Iranians, we've signed an oil agreement for us to give them crude for one of their refineries which is close to Basra, while they will compensate us in the Gulf, to increase our export," Zebari said.

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