BAGHDAD (AP) – The Lebanese prime minister met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday, becoming only the third top Arab figure to visit Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Fuad Saniora has said that his one-day trip is an opportunity to renew contacts, following more than a decade of cool relations between Beirut and Baghdad.
In a joint press conference with Saniora, al-Maliki said the two countries would sign several agreements soon, including one on Iraq exporting oil to Lebanon. He did not provide details.
The U.S. has encouraged visits to Iraq by moderate Arab leaders to shore up support for the Iraqi government, as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
Iraq is also eager to improve ties with its Arab neighbors, as part of the government’s growing confidence following improvements in security.
Lebanon’s parliamentary majority leader, Saad Hariri, visited Iraq last month, followed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the first Arab head of state to fly to Baghdad since the 2003 war.
Saniora will focus on bilateral ties, particularly trade, in his talks with al-Maliki, an Iraqi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to brief reporters. The Lebanese leader was accompanied by four Cabinet ministers.
It was not immediately clear whether Saniora would head to the southern city of Najaf, for a meeting with Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Leaders of the powerful Lebanese militia Hezbollah have close personal ties with the Shiite religious hierarchy in Najaf, and some Lebanese Shiites trace their family origins back to what is now Iraq.
Earlier this week, Saniora said that his trip is an opportunity to renew contact between the longtime trade partners. Relations between Lebanon and Iraq soured in the mid-1990s after Iraqi agents killed a dissident in Beirut. But the two maintained embassies in each other’s capitals even after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
In other developments, Iraqi troops arrested the son of a prominent Sunni leader during a raid in Baghdad late Tuesday. The arrest of Adnan al-Dulaimi’s son Muthanna, 44, come eight months after the detention of another son and prompted an outcry among Sunni politicians.
Al-Dulaimi is one of the three top leaders of the largest Sunni Arab parliament bloc, the National Accordance Front.
In a telephone interview, al-Dulaimi said the arrest is “targeting national reconciliation, the political process and democracy in the country.” He said the arrest of his two sons is meant to silence him, and that Muthanna is not involved in politics.
Al-Dulaimi said that his son was arrested by a U.S.-Iraqi joint force at his father’s house in al-Adel neighborhood of western Baghdad, and that troops told him his son is suspected of taking part in displacing Shiites and demolishing a house. However, the U.S. military said no American troops were involved in the Tuesday night’s arrest of al-Dulaimi’s son.
It was not clear whether the latest arrest would upset the delicate political cooperation between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
Al-Dulaimi’s political bloc consists of three parties and holds 44 out of 275 parliament seats. Last year, his Iraqi Accordance Front pulled out of the 39-member Cabinet last year, saying it was not getting enough say in decision-making.
The bloc returned last month after al-Maliki’s crackdown on Shiite militias.
Also Wednesday, al-Maliki ordered an investigation into arrest raids by Iraqi security forces in the volatile province of Diyala the day before. An aide to Diyala’s provincial governor was killed in a firefight between local guards and the troops, and a university president and a member of the provincial council, both Sunnis, were arrested.
Diyala’s deputy governor, Awf Rahoumi, said the interior minister is to form a committee to investigate the incidents. At the University of Diyala, students staged a protest, asking for the release of the university president.