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EU Welcomes Iraqi Foreign Minister

Brussels, 12 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers were united on 12 July in welcoming their Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar al-Zebari, the first member of the new interim Iraqi government to visit the bloc's headquarters in Brussels.

Bernard Bot, the Dutch foreign minister who currently chairs EU meetings, told Foreign Minister al-Zebari that he has the support of all EU governments.

"All of us (EU foreign ministers) agree on the need for strong support to the Iraqi interim government," Bot said. "The aim is to build a secure, stable, united, democratic and, hopefully, prosperous Iraq."

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, praised the meeting and dropped a heavy hint that Iraq's neighbor Turkey will soon get the nod for EU-accession talks.

"It was a great day. We had a very straightforward operational discussion about what we can do to assist Iraq, bearing in mind that in a few years' time, Iraq will represent the eastern border of the European Union," Straw said.
Al-Zebari told journalists before the talks with the EU that he expects "more than just verbal" support.

Straw said that as part of the "straightforward" discussions, al-Zebari had asked the EU to give up its policy of providing aid money through an internationally operated "trust fund." This decision was adopted last year when most EU governments were unwilling to contribute directly to institutions reporting to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

"Mister Zebari wanted to see European Union aid go directly into Iraq rather than going through intermediaries at the international financial institutions like the World Bank or United Nations' agencies," Straw said. "He also wanted our support for the political process, particularly the elections."

One EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, said that although channeling aid directly into Iraq would make things easier for the country's government, there is a "consensus" within the EU that the present arrangements should continue. This, the diplomat said, would give the EU the necessary guarantees of transparency as to how the money is spent.

The EU is giving Iraq about 200 million euros ($248 million) a year between 2004 and 2006. The bloc last month approved a medium-term strategy for developing its relations with Iraq. The strategy foresees the gradual development of trade links and political dialogue as Iraq proceeds to hold provisional elections. Those polls are expected to lead to the adoption of a new constitution and eventually fully free elections.

Al-Zebari indicated a certain impatience on the part of Iraq when he told journalists before the talks with the EU that he expects "more than just verbal" support.

However, after the meeting, he displayed a more conciliatory mood, saying Iraq is "grateful and appreciative of all the support [the EU has] offered us."

Al-Zebari said Iraq also wants greater "political visibility" from the EU, adding that the opening of an EU representative office in Iraq would be "most welcome."

Britain's Foreign Secretary Straw said Iraq had appealed for "the closest possible relations." He underlined the fact that France on 12 July exchanged ambassadors with Baghdad after a hiatus of 13 years.

However, EU officials have long said they consider the security situation in Iraq too risky to set up a permanent office.

EU ministers on 12 July took exception to recent indications by the interim Iraqi government that it will bring back the death penalty. Capital punishment was suspended under the U.S.-led occupation.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bot said the EU message had been "very clear" -- the bloc vigorously opposes the death penalty.

"We also discussed the question of the death penalty and expressed the hope that the death penalty will be abolished in Iraq, and we will continue to dialogue with Iraq on this issue," Bot said.

However, there was no indication that the EU is about to penalize Iraq for reinstating the practice.

Al-Zebari argued that capital punishment is a necessary means of deterrence against insurgents and other criminals, saying: "We need a deterrence against those elements, especially those who are committing serious crimes or serious terrorist attacks, and as an option, in order to deter those people from carrying out their evil acts."

Al-Zebari will meet NATO ambassadors in Brussels on 13 July to discuss the details of the alliance's recent decision play a role in training Iraqi security forces.