Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is to visit Germany and Italy this week to encourage European investment in his country, a government spokesman said, adding that Iraq is now safe for business.
European firms have long been eyeing the opportunities that oil-rich Iraq offers
Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh said al-Maliki's visit aimed to boost Baghdad's ties with European nations and encourage them to start investing in Iraq where violence levels have fallen to a four-year low.
Al-Maliki will be in Berlin on Tuesday, July 22, and is to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Iraq needs Germany on its side," Alaa Al Ashimy, Iraqi ambassador to Germany, said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
European companies have long been eyeing opportunities in oil-rich Iraq. The European Union is negotiating an energy pact with Iraq, part of the bloc's efforts to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Iraq has the world's third largest proven reserves of oil and in June opened key producing fields to foreign investment.
"We're talking to Siemens, Daimler and German firms involved in farming, oil and gas," al-Dabbagh said.
Lucrative contracts beckon
al-Maliki, right, shakes with Glos in Baghdad
Last week, Germany's Economy Minister, Michael Glos, said one such company, Wintershall, had a "big chance" of winning oil exploration rights in Iraq. It is part of chemicals group BASF.
"I hope that it and other firms get more involved in extracting crude oil in Iraq," said Glos on his way back from Baghdad. He was the first German cabinet minister to visit Iraq since the US invasion of the country in 2003.
Asked if the time was ripe to invest in Iraq, Glos said: "I think so. I felt in Iraq that Prime Minister Maliki has won the trust of the different ethnic groups. It seems to me that he has managed to largely suppress the terrorists."
A state-owned coach-assembly factory in the town of Iskandariyah, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, is an example of those plants where the Iraqi authorities would like to see German skills and money at work.
Using dated machinery, only 450 people work now at a site that used to employ nearly 3,500 in its heyday under the late president Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad has suggested to German carmaker Daimler that it could be turning out gleaming Mercedes-Benz buses and trucks.
Security remains a concern
Suicide bombings are still a reality in Iraq
But Iskandariyah is an edgy place. In recent years, it was part of a zone of kidnappings and assassinations known as the death triangle, and German executives admit that they worry they could still be seized and held to ransom by criminals.
The German foreign ministry advises nationals to leave Iraq immediately and not to trust the security forces whose capabilities are "limited" and loyalties "uncertain." Those warnings have annoyed Iraqi politicians, who insist the outlook is more positive.
Al Hashimy also said he thought government security warnings wouldn't keep Germany from getting more involved in his country. "The Germans are patient and sceptical; they think carefully before they make a decision. But once they've decided, then they act on their decision, and that's the situation we've reached now in 2008," he told Deutsche Welle.
As for the security warnings, Glos himself took no chances during his visit. He wore a bullet-proof vest and stayed in safe zones, though he later told the German daily Die Welt in an interview, "My impression is that the security situation is improving."
A meeting with the pope
From Germany, al-Maliki will travel to Italy, which sent 3,000 troops to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, but has since withdrawn them.
Dabbagh said al-Maliki would also meet Pope Benedict and brief him on the government's measures to spread tolerance and national reconciliation among Iraqis. The pope has often called for an end to violence in Iraq.