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German FM begins first Iraq visit

Steinmeier with US secretary of state Clinton
The coming of a new US government enabled a healing of Iraq differences

Germany's foreign minister has arrived in the Iraqi capital in the first such visit since Berlin opposed the US-led invasion in 2003.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was received at Baghdad airport by his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari.

Correspondents say violence is at its lowest level since 2003, though security remains fragile and visits by foreign VIPs are shrouded in security.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Baghdad exactly a week ago.

The trips signal a change of heart in some European capitals as they deepen ties with Iraq having opposed the former US administration's moves to topple Saddam Hussein, observers say.

US President Barack Obama says he plans to withdraw US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

"We hope that this will be a new beginning for broader relations in different fields," said Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi, who was also in the reception committee.

Mr Steinmeier is due to hold meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.

Stabilisation

The last time a German foreign minister visited Iraq was in 1987, three years before UN sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein's government over its invasion of Kuwait.

Economy Minister Michael Glos visited Iraq last July since when the two governments signed a bilateral investment agreement.

"The Iraqi government has achieved important successes in stabilising the country in recent months," Mr Steinmeier told reporters before leaving for Iraq.

"My visit shows that we want to support the new Iraq as it moves towards consolidating democracy. Germany wants to assist Iraq in reconstruction," he added.

Economy ministry officials in Berlin said Germany would open an economic information offices in Baghdad and Irbil, in the mainly Kurdish north, to help German firms do business in Iraq.

Gemany is Europe's largest economy and Iraq has some of the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

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