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Kuwaiti official visits Iraq, a 20-year first

BAGHDAD — The prime minister of Kuwait visited Iraq on Wednesday in the highest-level meeting between the countries since Saddam Hussein invaded the small, oil-rich emirate 20 years ago.

Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheik Nasser al Mohammed al Sabah's visit marked a significant diplomatic step for Iraq, which has struggled to mend relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors and is frantically preparing to host a summit of Arab nations in March.

Iraq still owes Kuwait tens of billions of dollars in damages, and the countries have yet to agree on disputed borders and maritime access. It wasn't until last month that the U.N. Security Council lifted most of the sanctions that it had imposed on Iraq after the 1991 conflict with Kuwait.

The two countries seem eager to repair the relationship. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has said he'll visit Kuwait soon.

"It is our fate to be neighbors," Mohammed al Sabah, the Kuwaiti foreign minister, said at a news conference in Baghdad. "And therefore we have decided to surmount any obstacles to strong Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations, and affirm our commitment to preserving security and stability and working towards the development and prosperity of our countries and of the region."

U.S. officials, who were instrumental in persuading the Security Council to remove the sanctions that had long crippled Iraq's economy, were pleased with the improving relationship.

"We are encouraging all of Iraq's neighbors to welcome this new government, work closely with it to resolve its obligations and to move forward," said a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the news media.

Kuwait lies at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, next to Iraq's only major port. On Monday, a Kuwaiti coast guard officer died after an exchange of fire with an Iraqi fishing boat, which the Kuwaitis claimed was sailing in their territorial waters.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said the incident underscored the need to demarcate the disputed border but that it shouldn't harm the "good relations with our Kuwaiti brothers."

Iraqi and Kuwaiti officials said the issue of Iraq's debts would be high on the agenda. Iraq owes Kuwait some $25 billion for damages to its oil fields, which Saddam ordered set on fire, and Kuwait until now has been unwilling to write off the debt.

However, the Kuwaiti foreign minister said his government "has an overwhelming wish" to invest in rebuilding Iraq's devastated infrastructure.

U.S. officials hope that a warming relationship with Kuwait will pave the way for improved Iraqi relations with other Gulf nations, chiefly Saudi Arabia, which has yet to appoint an ambassador to Iraq. Officials in Sunni Muslim-led Saudi Arabia are deeply opposed to Maliki, a Shiite Muslim who they think is too cozy with Shiite Iran.

(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa in Baghdad and Ali al Basri in Basra, Iraq, contributed to this article.)


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