'Russia expanding diplomatic presence in Iraq'

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Moscow, Mar 25: Outgoing President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is expanding its diplomatic presence in Iraq and seeking greater business for Russian companies there.

''For the purpose of intensifying bilateral ties and in accordance with the existing agreements, we are expanding the geography of Russian diplomatic presence in Iraq,'' he said in a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, the Kremlin press service reported. The message was handed over by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister AV Saltanov, who is also Mr Putin's special envoy to West Asia. ''We hope that the Consulate General set up in Erbil in November 2007 will become an important channel for facilitating cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan,'' Mr Putin said.

''We plan to restore our consular mission in the south of the country in Basra in the foreseeable future,'' he added.

He also said Russian companies were seeking greater business and wanted to become more closely involved in the reconstruction and modernisation of Iraq's economy.

''Our companies are ready to increase their contribution to the reconstruction and modernisation of Iraq's economic infrastructure, primarily in the energy and oil and gas spheres, where we have accumulated extensive experience,'' he said.

Mr Putin mentioned a contract to develop the second stage of the Western Kurna-2 oil field and a project to modernise the Kirkuk-Banias oil pipeline as among the most promising areas of Russian business participation.

''I am expecting that Russian businesses' proactive mood will be matched by adequate support from the Iraqi leadership,'' he said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, during his visit to Moscow in February, invited Russia's largest independent crude producer LUKoil's CEO Vagit Alekperov to visit Iraq.

Russia wrote off 12 billion dollar Iraqi debt, a move widely rumoured to be aimed at securing lucrative oil contracts. The deal on the debt cancellation was signed during Mr Zebari's visit to Moscow.

Following the writing off of most of Iraq's debt, LUKoil said it hoped to regain the right to develop Iraq's giant West Qurna-2 oil field.

LUKoil operated the first phase of West Qurna and was looking to develop West Qurna-2 in southern Iraq. The deal for both phases was signed for 23 years in 1997 under the Saddam regime, but frozen in 2002.

Mr Zebari said a bilateral commission would be established to look into contracts suspended since the fall of the Saddam regime.


UNI

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