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Iraqi Prime Minister Urges Arab States to Send Ambassadors to Baghdad

Iraq's prime minister has called on his neighbors to forgive Iraq's debt and establish full diplomatic ties, saying that their failure to do so is harming Iraq's ability to stabilize. He spoke at a conference for Iraq's neighboring states in Kuwait. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a strongly worded appeal to his neighboring Arab states to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Baghdad.

He said, "It is hard for us to explain why diplomatic ties have not been resumed with Iraq, which got rid of a dictatorship." He added, "Many other foreign countries have kept diplomatic missions in Baghdad regardless of security considerations."

He spoke in Kuwait at the opening session of a one-day conference of Iraq's neighboring states aimed at boosting security, the economy and regional ties.

No Sunni Arab state has a full-time ambassador in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have promised to send ambassadors to Baghdad but have not yet done so. By contrast, Iran - a non-Arab, mostly Shi'ite country that fought a long war with Iraq in the 1980s - has resumed full diplomatic ties with its neighbor and has a fully functioning embassy.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have pressured Arab states to establish full diplomatic relations, saying it will help Iraq's stability and integration into the region. U.S. officials also say they hope the Arab states will help counter Iran's influence in Iraq.

Many Arab states say they remain concerned about security. Jordan's embassy in Baghdad was bombed in 2003. Egypt's ambassador to Iraq was kidnapped and killed in 2005 and has not been replaced.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Maliki also called on Iraq's neighbors to forgive its debt. He said continuing to have to meet loan payments is hurting Iraq's economy.

The State Department says about $66.5 billion of Iraq's foreign debt has already been canceled, but says another $65 billion to $80 billion remains, much of it owed to countries in the Gulf region.

Iraqi and U.S. officials asked for debt relief at another regional meeting in Bahrain on Monday, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated afterward that no commitments had been made.

Rice is attending the Kuwait meeting of Iraq's neighbors, along with representatives of other members of the so-called G8 group of nations.

Talks will also focus on improving Iraq's security. A draft of the final communiqué seen by Western news agencies welcomes Iraq's commitment to disarm all militias.

The meeting comes as Iraqi security forces have been battling Shi'ite militias in Basra and the Baghdad district of Sadr City, both strongholds of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The Iraqi government has insisted that it is targeting renegade militia groups, not Sadr's entire organization, but on Sunday Sadr threatened to declare "open war" if the crackdown continues.