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Iraqi Minister Asks for Greater EU Presence in Baghdad - 2004-07-12

The European Union says it will try to determine how best it can help Iraq reconstruct its economy and develop democratic institutions there. The vague commitment came after a meeting in Brussels between the 25-member bloc's foreign ministers and their Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, who asked the EU to adopt a higher profile in his country.

Even though he thanked the EU for being the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to his country, Mr. Zebari is seeking a bigger EU role in his country's reconstruction.

"We have requested, in fact, a more political visibility of the EU in Iraq, and even to the extent that an office of the EU in Baghdad would be most welcome by the Iraqi people," he said.

The EU has already committed $371 million in humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Iraq this year and expects to disburse a similar sum in 2005. But EU ministers told their Iraqi counterpart that they will wait until the security situation in the war-torn country improves before deciding to boost the bloc's presence there.

EU diplomats say the union will decide in the weeks ahead how best it can help the interim Iraqi government promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights, but an EU statement issued after the meeting with Mr. Zebari did not mention any specific commitments.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the revolving EU presidency, told reporters that he and his colleagues had urged Mr. Zebari's government not to reintroduce the death penalty, which was suspended under the U.S. occupation authority before it returned sovereignty to the interim Iraqi administration two weeks ago.

"We are opposed to capital punishment and we hope to continue a dialogue on this issue," he said. "But I think the message has been very clear as far as the European Union is concerned."

Some members of the new government in Baghdad have suggested bringing back the death penalty for a limited period, noting that many Iraqis want it to be applied to Saddam Hussein and other top figures of the old regime.

Mr. Zebari says he personally opposes the death penalty, but he told reporters that the security situation in Iraq demands tough measures.

"The new democratic and free Iraq that we aspire to establish should also be free of any clauses of the death penalty in its law," he added. "On the other hand, we are facing a serious security and terrorist challenge to the new order. These people who are fighting Iraqis, who are killing innocent Iraqis, are senseless and out of human conscience. There is a need for the new government to be more decisive and tougher in its actions to bring the security situation under control."

Mr. Zebari's visit to Brussels coincides with an announcement by France that it is re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iraq that were broken off at the start of the Gulf war in 1991. EU diplomats say the French move is a sign of Paris' eagerness to insure that French companies share in potentially lucrative Iraqi reconstruction projects.