By Jason Szep

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Cambridge Mass., Oct 2 (Reuters) Iraq's foreign minister said several Islamic countries are strengthening their ties with Baghdad and called for an end to Iranian meddling in his country's affairs.

Hoshiyar Zebari added that an immediate withdrawal of US troops in Iraq would spark a regional conflict and give safe-haven to al-Qaeda and other militants, echoing statements by the Bush administration.

Saudi Arabia was among the nations diplomatically embracing Iraq, Zebari said in a speech at Harvard University, having recently agreed to raise its level of diplomatic representation in Baghdad to the highest level.

''Many other Islamic countries like Indonesia, like Azerbaijan, have also agreed to send their ambassadors to Baghdad. Also, the United Arab Emirates,'' he said.

''We have been able to discern a perceptible shift in favor of Iraq by many countries which until now had been much less engaged. These impressions were confirmed during meetings last week at the United Nations in New York.'' While Iraq is unhappy with Iran for ''interfering in Iraq's internal affairs,'' Zebari said Baghdad must mend its poor relations with Tehran.

''The United States presence there (in Iraq) is temporary.

One day they will leave,'' he said. ''We need to forge good neighborly relations with each other.

''Iraq has sometimes become a battleground between the United States and Iran to settle scores. The message we've been giving out to both to keep their differences away from Iraq because we have too many things on our plate.'' The United States accuses Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq, a charge it denies. Iran blames the U.S. occupation for Iraq's problems and also complains about the detention of its citizens by US forces in Iraq.

Zebari described the situation in Iraq as ''difficult, challenging and even critical'' because of violence. But he said a recent visit to Iraq by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner could lead to better relations between Iraq and the European Union.

''France, once the standard-bearer against the US-led coalition in Iraq, is now eager to be much more engaged with Iraq,'' he said. ''That is a notable development because France's increased engagement would likely mean a greater engagement by both the United Nations and by the European Union.'' After a visit to Iraq in August, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Europe must fully back a wider UN effort to bring peace to Iraq and should avoid trying to ''punish'' the United States.

Kouchner's visit to Iraq was seen as underlining a change in tone between Paris and Washington since the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken a much more US-friendly approach than his predecessor Jacques Chirac.

REUTERS SZ HT0855

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