Jordan's Abdullah Travels to Baghdad

By Amit R. Paley and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

BAGHDAD, Aug. 11 -- King Abdullah II of Jordan on Monday became the first Arab head of state to visit Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion five years ago, the latest sign that Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors are strengthening ties with its Shiite-led government.

During Abdullah's brief, unannounced visit to the capital, he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, both Shiites, to express his support for the Iraqi government.

The king later issued a statement urging other Arab nations to reach out to Iraq.

Although Iraq has had close ties with Iran, its non-Arab Shiite neighbor, its relations with Sunni countries in the Middle East have been strained. The Bush administration has urged other Arab countries, many of which it counts as close allies, to improve their ties to Baghdad, and in recent months they have.

The Arab nations of Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have recently promised to send ambassadors to Iraq. Abdullah, an important U.S. ally in the region, announced recently that Jordan will reopen a full embassy in Baghdad.

"This visit will open a new page in the relations between both countries," the prime minister said, according to a statement issued by his office. "It will help to benefit both of these brotherly nations and will support the security of Iraq and the region."

The trip took place as the Iraqi government announced it was halting a military offensive in restive Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, to offer a limited amnesty to insurgents who surrender this week.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said Maliki had ordered the pause until Friday. The operation, which began late last month in Diyala, an ethnically mixed province that has seen some of the most severe sectarian violence of the war, followed previous Iraqi military campaigns that also included amnesty offers.

"We learned that many insurgents want to hand themselves over but, because of the raids and operations, they feared they might be killed," Askari said. "So the prime minister made this decision to encourage them to stop fighting."

In other developments, Iraqi officials have decided to drop Ernst & Young as the auditor of a multibillion-dollar account that funds most of the Iraqi government's operations, according to people familiar with the matter. The company has audited the account, which last year totaled $37.5 billion, for several years because most other firms have left the country.

The move by the Committee of Financial Experts, the formal name for the group that selects the auditor of the account, known as the Development Fund for Iraq, comes as a growing number of financial and auditing firms show interest in resuming work in Iraq.

The committee did not have major problems with Ernst & Young but felt that the firm was "too arrogant," according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced publicly.

The committee is expected to select one of the other so-called Big Four auditors as early as this week, these people said.

Charles Perkins, a spokesman for Ernst & Young, said he believed that Iraqi officials planned to hire a different firm but declined to comment further.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company