Iraq PM criticizes neighbors for lack of support
By Sue Pleming and Ulf Laessing
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rebuked neighboring states on Tuesday for not doing enough to strengthen ties with Baghdad, write off Iraq's debts or stop militants entering the war-torn country.
In a hard-hitting speech at a meeting in Kuwait of foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors and Western powers, Maliki rattled off a list of grievances his government had.
Maliki did not name any countries but his remarks appeared aimed at Sunni Arab countries which have only low-level ties with his Shi'ite-led government.
"It's difficult for us to explain why diplomatic ties have not been resumed with Iraq, which got rid of a dictatorship," Maliki said at the start of the one-day meeting.
"Many other foreign countries have kept diplomatic missions in Baghdad regardless of security considerations."
No ambassador from any Sunni Arab nation is stationed permanently in Baghdad. Visits by top officials from Arab states, which have been reluctant to extend full legitimacy to Iraq's U.S.-backed government, are also rare.
By comparison, Iraq has growing ties with Shi'ite Iran.
The Kuwait meeting is a follow-on from gatherings of Iraq's neighbors as well as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that were held in Turkey and Egypt last year. The talks are aimed at helping stabilize Iraq.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is at the meeting, has said she would push hard for Arab neighbors to "meet their obligations" and step up financial and diplomatic support that has not been forthcoming since the 2003 invasion.
About $66.5 billion of Iraq's foreign debt has been forgiven, according to State Department estimates. Of the estimated $56 billion to $80 billion debt that remains, more than half is owed to Gulf countries, the department said.
Maliki said Iraq was still waiting for relief of debt and compensation owed as a result of former leader Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
"The cancelling of debts and the suspension of compensation that Iraq pays would present a positive message to Iraq's people that there is a real wish to help them overcome crises and speed up reconstruction," Maliki said.
Iraq's recent attempts to crush Shi'ite militias will also be a central topic at the meeting and Maliki is expected to urge Arab countries to back those efforts.
A draft of a statement to be issued on Tuesday at the meeting said participants "welcome the Iraqi government's commitment to disarm and dismantle all militias and illegally armed groups, enforcing the rule of law, and ensuring the state's monopoly on armed forces."
The statement, obtained by Reuters, also urged the "maintaining or opening of diplomatic missions in Iraq."
Promises have been made by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to open up embassies in Baghdad and the U.S. hope is that if Riyadh announces firm plans and dates then others will follow.
Many Arab states have cited security concerns for their reluctance to open embassies in Baghdad after Egypt's envoy to was kidnapped and killed in 2005.
After several hours of meetings with Arab ministers in Bahrain on Monday, Rice got a lukewarm response to her appeal for embassies to open but she told reporters the process was moving forward and Iraq was gaining acceptance in the region.
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; Writing by Dean Yates in Baghdad, editing by Samia Nakhou;)