WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama sketched the outline of a new US-Iraq relationship on Wednesday, saying it was time to broaden ties forged during six years of war.
Three weeks after US troops withdrew from Iraqi towns and cities, Obama and visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki were eager to show that the future US-Iraq relationship would emphasize nonmilitary cooperation.
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) escorts Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington July 22, 2009. [Agencies]
"The United States and Iraq have known difficult times together. Now both of us agree that the bonds forged between Americans and Iraqis in war can pave the way for progress that can be forged in peace," Obama said.
Obama's comments signaled that his administration wants to turn the page on the war in Iraq as it focuses on the conflict in Afghanistan. He said the United States was on schedule to withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and 130,000 troops still remain to help secure the country and train Iraqi forces.
About 4,300 US soldiers have been killed, tens of thousands of Iraqis have died and millions have been displaced in the past six years.
Maliki's weeklong visit to the US aims to demonstrate Iraq's independence from Washington, encourage foreign investors to return and renew pressure on the United Nations to lift punitive war reparations measures.
Plea for lifting sanctions
Earlier in the day, Maliki was in New York to urge the UN Security Council's most powerful members to cancel all sanctions and resolutions adopted after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, saying Iraq is now a democracy that poses no threat to international peace and security.
Maliki discussed the government's effort to get rid of the resolutions with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and separately with the five permanent veto-wielding members of the Security Council - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France.
Yin Gang, a Middle East expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said it is likely the international community will lift sanctions, adding that Kuwait "shouldn't be too rigid" in demanding compensation from Iraq for the first Gulf War.
"It's not good for the region, including Kuwait, if Iraq's reconstruction is too slow," Yin said. "Most of the sanctions should be lifted."
Zhang Xiaodong, also from the CASS, said "punitive" sanctions imposed against Hussein's leadership should be lifted, but war reparations are likely to continue. "Changing the government should not be the reason to cancel Iraq's war reparations," he said, as Baghdad cannot avoid responsibility for the damage caused by its invasion of Kuwait.
But Zhang said the international community could be "flexible" on the issue.
The Security Council decided on Dec 22 to review all Iraq-related resolutions adopted after the Kuwait invasion and asked the secretary-general to consult the Iraqi government and report on facts for the council to consider in deciding what actions are needed "for Iraq to achieve the status it enjoyed prior to the adoption of such resolutions".
Maliki said he emphasized in Wednesday's meetings that Iraq now has an elected democratic government.
The Security Council has passed more than 70 resolutions on Iraq since the Kuwaiti invasion, several imposing sanctions and requiring Iraq to pay Kuwait compensation, return looted treasures and archives, and account for missing Kuwaitis.
In May 2003, the council lifted economic sanctions, opening the country to international trade and investment and allowing oil exports to resume and in June 2004, it lifted an embargo on the sale of conventional weapons to the government.
Some activities related to the possible production of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons remain on the books, and missiles with a range of more than 150 km are still banned.
Maliki said Iraq is waiting for the secretary-general's report, which UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said "will be issued shortly".
He also announced plans for a foreign investor conference in October. Oil-rich Iraq desperately needs money to help rebuild the country after years of sanctions, neglect and war.
"All of this comes as a natural reaction to the stability and to the direction of the Iraqi national unity government to provide what is needed for rebuilding ... a country that was destroyed by wars, by dictatorship," Maliki said.