- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

President Obama promised Wednesday to help Iraq escape billions of dollars in debts and reparations it still owes neighbors from the era of Saddam Hussein.

At a joint news conference with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Mr. Obama said he thought it “would be a mistake for Iraq to continue to be burdened by the sins of a deposed dictator.”

Iraqi officials have said one of their top priorities during their visit to Washington is to lock in U.S. assurances to help relieve their debts, particularly the $25 billion Kuwait says Iraq still owes it for damage inflicted during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq also has to contend with more than 70 U.N. sanctions dating from the Saddam period, including resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction passed under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which deals with threats to international peace and security.

Mr. al-Maliki said he was pleased by Mr. Obama’s pledge to help vacate these old resolutions.

“I have seen a clear commitment from the president and the administration to support Iraq and to be committed to all elements of the agreement, and to help Iraq to get out of Chapter 7 and international sanctions which were imposed as a result of the ventures and the wars that were led by Saddam’s regime, including occupying the neighboring state of Kuwait,” he said.

Last month, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid al-Bayati, said Iraq had already paid $27.1 billion to its smaller neighbor. However, the Kuwaitis say Iraq still owes $25 billion.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters Monday that it is a “long, legal technical process to get rid of these resolutions.” Regarding Kuwait, he said that Iraq was paying 5 percent of its oil earnings, or about $100 million a month, in war reparations.

“We are asking for a timeline” to phase out the payments, he said.

The Iraqi visit is the first since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities last month under a status of forces agreement.

Mr. Zebari said Iraq faces serious challenges in the coming months and expressed hope that the Obama administration would not neglect Iraq as the U.S. shifts its focus to the war in Afghanistan.

“Your attention and diplomatic engagement are still needed,” he said, to help Iraq resolve disputes over the status of the city of Kirkuk and a law governing investment in Iraq’s oil resources.

In addition, there have been several incidents of friction between U.S. and Iraqi military authorities since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities.

Mr. Obama acknowledged Wednesday that on occasion the Iraqi and American militaries disagree on tactics.

“Now, what we’ve seen is that there are going to be, at times, differences in strategy, in the interests of the Iraqi security forces in setting up a checkpoint at some point, and our armed forces suggesting that, from our experience, a checkpoint might create a target for AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq], and so it’s better to be more mobile and to go after them,” Mr. Obama said.

The president added, however, that “overall, we have been very encouraged by the progress that’s been made.”

Under the agreement signed last year, all U.S. troops are to exit Iraq by the end of 2011.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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