- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) — Members of a high-level Iraqi delegation began arriving yesterday in Moscow for talks expected to address Russian contracts signed with Saddam Hussein’s regime that have been left in limbo after the U.S.-led war.

Jalal Talabani, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, said the Iraqis would meet with President Vladimir Putin and representatives of Russian companies at the talks expected today.

“The main goal of our visit is to strengthen relations between Iraq and Russia,” he said. “We want to have better understanding between Moscow and Baghdad.”

The Iraqi delegation is led by Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, who holds the rotating presidency of the council and was to arrive separately.

On Thursday, Mr. Putin told visiting U.S. envoy James A. Baker III that Russia, Iraq’s largest creditor, was ready to start talks on forgiving about $8 billion in debt. But he stressed that Moscow would negotiate the issue “taking into account the economic interests of Russia and Russian companies in Iraq.”

As a strong opponent of the war, Russia has been excluded from bidding on $18.6 billion in reconstruction contracts under Pentagon plans that permit only coalition members to be involved.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said Friday that the debt talks could be linked to Russian companies’ participation in Iraq’s reconstruction.

Mr. Fedotov said big contracts signed by Russian oil companies and the former Iraqi regime had been “left suspended” after the war, and voiced hope that the new Iraqi leadership elected after the transition period will uphold them.

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia had long sought to remove U.N. sanctions on Iraq.

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