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EU Delegation Makes Surprise Iraq Visit Ahead of Donor Conference

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says Europe has put behind it the controversy surrounding the Iraq war, and is united in its desire to help the Iraqi government. Mr. Straw was part of a European Union delegation that made a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital ahead of a key donors conference to be held in Brussels later this month.

Jack Straw(l) with Iraqi FM Hoshyar Zebari
It was the first visit ever to Iraq by a European Union delegation. A sign, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, of a shift in attitude in Europe. "I would like to underline something. Europe was divided over the Iraq war, bitterly divided. But the fact of this delegation today from the European Union underlines the commitment and the decision by the European Union to put the past behind us, and to look forward in a united way and to work for the people of Iraq with the democratically elected government of Iraq," he said.

Mr. Straw also said he was confident that Iraq would meet its August 15 deadline for drafting a new constitution, holding an October referendum on that constitution and new elections in December.

The EU delegation was made up of its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn. The group met with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other senior government officials.

The reason for the visit was to plan for the June 22nd donors conference on Iraq to take place in Brussels. Representatives from more than 80 countries and international organizations are expected to attend.

The March 2003 invasion of Iraq sparked huge controversy in Europe, where many governments were against it. Now, more than two years later, the country remains plagued by violence. Since the interim government was formed in April, about 700 people have died in car-bombings and other insurgent-related violence.

But in recent days, an Iraqi legislator and a former Iraqi minister have both said that the government has begun talks with some insurgent leaders, who they say are interested in laying down their weapons and joining the political process.

Former Electricity Minister Aiham Alsammarae identified two such groups as the Mujahedin Army and the Islamic Army in Iraq. The second group is blamed for numerous assassination attempts of Iraqi officials, and the murder of an Italian journalist and Pakistani contractors. The group also held two French journalists hostage for four months last year.

Prime Minister Jaafari did not confirm any discussions are taking place. But he said the Iraqi government is open to the idea. He says the Iraqi government is open to talking with everyone, to allow them to lay down their arms and give up violence. He says some insurgents come from outside of Iraq, others from within. For those from within Iraq, the government is open to talking with them so they can be part of the political process, or work as a political opposition group.