German foreign minister meets with Iraq officials

BAGHDAD — Germany’s foreign minister met with top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad today in the latest high-level visit by a major Western nation that opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but has promised to help Iraq rebuild now that security has improved.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit — the first by a German foreign minister since 1987 — comes on the heels of a similar trip by French President Nicolas Sarkozy a week ago. Germany and France were strong opponents of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein but the governments in both countries have changed since 2003 and have sought greater roles in Iraq.

German and French companies could benefit from the 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, met today with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. He also plans to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the German Foreign Ministry said.

One of Germany’s initiatives to improve ties with Iraq will be to set up an economic office in Baghdad, with a branch in the northern city of Irbil, said the German Economic Ministry.

“The office will contribute to reviving the once-intensive economic relations between Germany and Iraq,” Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said in a statement. “The office also will serve to overcome the economic consequences of the war in Iraq and contribute to the country’s economic rebuilding.”

Guttenberg’s predecessor, Michael Glos, was the only previous Cabinet minister to visit Iraq since the war, traveling there last July.

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 U.S. has urged the international community to step up its efforts to help Iraq rebuild. The U.S. 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 under a security agreement signed with Baghdad last year.

The agreement redefined many aspects of the relationship between the U.S. 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 U.S. detainee operations in Iraq, said today the number of detainees held by the U.S. 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 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 U.S. has built a new prison in Taji, about 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 U.S. guards abused detainees.

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