- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Dutch foreign minister said yesterday that improved security in Iraq has opened the way for the European Union to discuss stepped-up reconstruction efforts — even as his Iraqi counterpart conceded that security here remains precarious.

“Now that the security conditions have improved, it is easier to provide this aid,” Foreign Minister Ben Bot, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said during a one-day visit to Baghdad.

He said that last week’s peace agreement that ended three weeks of fighting in Najaf, and ongoing talks between Iraq and its neighbors about how to curb the influx of foreign fighters, had established the groundwork for a better security environment.

However, fierce fighting between coalition forces and Iraqi insurgents continues in many parts of the country, including the capital, while the recent killing of an Italian journalist and the kidnapping of two French reporters underscored the risks for foreigners working in Iraq.

“It is not a secure environment,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a joint news conference with Mr. Bot. “We are not trying to underestimate the dangers [foreigners] are facing.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Zebari implored the EU and foreign reconstruction firms and aid agencies to increase their efforts to rebuild the country, saying it was crucial for restoring stability. The EU had said in the past that it was prepared to do that — but only if the security situation here improved.

Mr. Bot said that he will meet with his European counterparts next week to push for increased EU involvement in the country, including efforts to train Iraqi police and civil servants and assist with reconstruction, administration and preparations for elections scheduled for January.

Yesterday’s visit to Baghdad was the first by a high-level EU delegation since the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi took power June 28.

The EU has committed $371 million in humanitarian and reconstruction aid for Iraq this year. A similar commitment is expected next year.

Separately, Mr. Bot said that the 1,400 Dutch troops in Iraq will stay at least through March to help maintain stability through the elections scheduled for January.

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