Iraqi Foreign Minister Visits, Hoping for Debt Reduction

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed optimism in Moscow on Sunday that an agreement would be signed to reduce his country's $13 billion debt to Russia, leading to greater cooperation between the countries.

"The signing of an agreement to write off the debt will create opportunities for cooperation between Russia and Iraq in all spheres," Zebari said, Interfax reported.

He was in Moscow to participate in the fifth meeting of a bilateral economic and trade commission, reported Sunday. Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko was expected to lead the host delegation, and Zebari was scheduled to have a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Itar-Tass reported.

Zebari said he expected the deal to be signed on this trip, Itar-Tass said.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Friday welcomed the expected decision, saying it would be a "historic turning point" in relations.

The decision to write off the debt was seen in part as an effort to improve Russian companies' chances of winning contracts in Iraq in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion it strongly opposed.

Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and other Iraqi officials met with a delegation led by Vladimir Chamov, the Russian ambassador to Iraq, on Friday in Baghdad to discuss expanding and developing friendly ties in all fields.

"It is expected that a new agreement will be signed to reduce the Iraqi debt by a proportion of 91 percent," Talabani's office said in a statement. "The two sides have agreed that this will be a historic turning point in relations between the two countries."

Iraq's debt to Russia has been estimated at $13 billion. The Iraqi diplomat said the deal was being signed under a 2004 agreement in which Russia and other creditor nations agreed to write off 80 percent of Iraq's debts.

At the time of the 2004 agreement, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would go further by forgiving some 90 percent of what Iraq owed, reducing its debt to about $1 billion.