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German foreign minister in Iraq for talks

world Updated: Feb 17, 2009 16:30 IST
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The German foreign minister was meeting with top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Tuesday in the latest high-level visit from a major Western nation that opposed the 2003 US-led invasion but has promised to help Iraq rebuild now that security has improved.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the first German foreign minister to visit Iraq in more than 20 years. His visit comes on the heels of a trip to Baghdad by French President Nicolas Sarkozy a week ago. France too opposed the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Both France and Germany have changed their policies since 2003 and are now seeking greater roles in Iraq.

German and French companies could benefit from this change by striking lucrative Iraq reconstruction contracts. Iraqi leaders appear eager to shore up their ties with European nations like Germany and France to ease their dependence on the United States.

"The Iraqi government in the past months has achieved important successes in the political stabilization of the country," Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin before departing. "My trip demonstrates that we want to support this new Iraq on its path to democratic consolidation and a peaceful balance between religions and ethnicities."

Steinmeier, who is traveling with representatives from German companies and cultural institutions, will meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, said the German Foreign Ministry. Steinmeier will make concrete proposals to improve ties with Iraq, including the opening of an economic office in Baghdad, said the Foreign Ministry.

German involvement in Iraq has been limited to small projects, including training Iraqi security personnel. The country is also part of a European Union program to train judges and senior police officers.

The US has urged the international community to step up its efforts to help Iraq rebuild. The US has provided the bulk of the support since the invasion but now has its eye on the exit door. Washington must withdraw its troops by the end of 2011 according to a security agreement signed with Baghdad last year. The agreement redefined many aspects of the relationship between the US and Iraq, including prohibiting American forces from holding suspects without charge as they have done since the beginning of the war. The agreement requires the American military to hand over detainees wanted by the Iraqis and release the rest. Maj Neal V Fisher, a military spokesman for US detainee operations in Iraq, said Tuesday the number of detainees held by the US in Iraq has dropped to 14,560 from a peak of more than 26,000 in 2007. He said the military has been releasing 1,500 detainees a month _ 50 a day _ to meet the requirements of the security agreement that took effect on Jan 1.

"At this rate we anticipate concluding our efforts by the end of 2009 or early 2010," Fisher said.

Of those detainees still in custody, Fisher said 2,453 of them have either been convicted or are being tried.

The US has built a new prison in Taji, 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baghdad, that it plans to turn over to the Iraqi government by the end of the year.

"Our plan is to house all of the detainees that the government of Iraq wants transferred or already convicted to that facility," Fisher told The Associated Press. "So we will hand them a brand new facility with prisoners from their system already in place." The detainee releases and transfers mark a major step toward shutting down a detention system that was tainted by the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where US guards abused detainees.