After years as a pariah nation, Iraq has set out to renew normal diplomatic relations with dozens of countries around the world, seeking to broaden its support and enlist more help for U.S. troops in combating a continuing insurgency.
The effort, which includes reopening embassies and sending out new diplomats, has gathered steam in the two weeks since an interim Iraqi government took power from the U.S.-led occupation authority on June 28. It is designed to allow Iraqis to deal directly with other governments after 15 months when the United States, as the occupying power, largely spoke for Baghdad in foreign capitals.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that he would soon name new ambassadors to head 43 Iraqi embassies that have resumed or will resume operations in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the United States. In a later phase of Iraq's return to the international stage, he added, the new government plans to surpass the 77 embassies maintained under the government of President Saddam Hussein.
"Among our top priorities is resumption of Iraq's international representation . . . with the goal of improving the new Iraqi government's place and image in the world," he said.
Minister of State Adnan Janabai said Iraq's foreign relations at this stage would concentrate on security, specifically the need to prevent foreign fighters from entering the country and to provide more training for the Iraqi military.
"Security comes up almost as a permanent agenda item," Janabai said in an interview. "That includes our relations with our immediate neighbors, but it also includes our relations with the countries of the multinational forces, with NATO and with the other countries that can contribute to our security."
Zebari met with European Union foreign ministers Monday in Brussels to discuss conditions under which their governments could supply equipment and help train Iraqi security forces, the Foreign Ministry announced. According to reports in the Iraqi press, he planned to meet with officials at NATO headquarters there with the same goal in mind.
Prodded by the Bush administration, NATO leaders decided at their summit in Istanbul last month to help train Iraqi forces. But European reluctance, voiced most loudly by France, appeared to limit the help to training troops outside of Iraq.
Against that background, the Foreign Ministry here called a news conference Monday to announce that France and Iraq had renewed diplomatic relations, cut since Iraqi forces under Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990. France and Iraq have a long history of close diplomatic and commercial ties, but the French government refused to associate itself with the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq or the postwar occupation that installed the interim government.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has made security his main task, had planned to handle the Brussels meetings himself. But he sent word Thursday that he was forced to cancel his plans because of security worries at home, according to reports from Brussels.
Similarly, he had planned a swing this week through the Middle East -- including Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt -- but was forced to postpone his departure, according to a spokeswoman in Baghdad.
Allawi has frequently criticized Iraq's neighbors over the entry of foreign fighters to join the insurgency attacking U.S. and Iraqi government forces. In the accusations, also made by Interior Minister Falah Naqib, Allawi has refrained from naming any countries. But other Iraqi and U.S. officials have pointed at Syria to the west and Iran to the east. Some Iraqi officials, including Zebari, the foreign minister, have suggested indirectly that Syria and Iran could face a U.S. attack if they allowed foreign fighters to come and go across their borders.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who advises Allawi on security issues, told reporters in the Syrian capital, Damascus, after talks there Sunday that the Syrian government had pledged full cooperation in guarding against border crossings by fighters from other countries.
In addition to security, Iraq has a long list of other issues with its neighbors. These include Iraqi military and civilian planes that were flown out of Iraq to avoid being destroyed during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and war reparations demanded by Kuwait because of the 1990 invasion. Among other issues are Iraqi money deposited in foreign banks, oil export contracts, debts and the resumption of normal cross-border commerce.
One of the first major diplomatic initiatives taken by Iraq after the fall of Hussein's government was to pay two decades of arrears to the Arab League. The Foreign Ministry said it had to pay $3.5 million when Zebari took Iraq's seat at the league headquarters in Cairo.
Although overshadowed by the United States even as it tries to resume one-on-one relations abroad, the Iraqi government has no plans to shift its long-standing Arab nationalist orientation and begin diplomatic relations with Israel, Janabai said. "That is certainly the last of our priorities," he added. "I don't think we are interested at the moment in having anything to do with a problem like that."
Although about 500 Foreign Ministry employees have been fired because of their ties to the Hussein government, Janabai said, diplomats who served under that government have not been excluded automatically from the list of candidates for new jobs. This includes those who may have been members of Hussein's Baath Party, he added.
"We don't rule out any Iraqis, except if they were guilty of crimes," he said.
The ministry said 250 people had been selected for training in diplomatic skills at foreign institutes. Of those, 35 have completed their courses and are ready to be dispatched abroad, and 60 others are still undergoing training.
The list of those seeking top jobs in embassies abroad is many times the number of available positions, Janabai said. The candidates include professional diplomats, members of political parties embraced by the interim government, and friends and backers of the country's new political leaders. In fact, a well-informed Iraqi official said, log-rolling among Iraq's religious, ethnic and political groups has been a principal factor in negotiations over filling top jobs in the new embassies.