Talabani to woo Czech firms for Iraqi reconstruction projects

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, photo: CTK

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani began his European tour in Prague on Monday, holding talks with Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle. Many were left scratching their heads when it was announced President Talabani would begin his short tour of Europe in the Czech capital, but the two countries actually enjoy very close ties. Mr Talabani even began a press conference on Monday with a few words of Czech.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, photo: CTK
The Iraqi president explained that he had chosen to begin his European trip in Prague primarily as an expression of gratitude for what the Czechs had done for Iraq. Former president Vaclav Havel was the first European president to meet members of the Iraqi opposition back in 1991. Mr Talabani visited Prague on several occasions afterwards as head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the anti-Saddam groups which now run Iraq.

The situation in Iraq was very much on the agenda of talks with President Klaus, as all eyes are on the referendum on Iraq's crucial draft constitution, which will be held in less than two weeks time. There has been some political posturing between Shia and Kurdish groups over the poll, and the Sunni minority could well boycott it. President Talabani, however, said he was confident the referendum would be a success.

"Yes, it is true there are some groups who reject it, but the majority of Iraqis accept and support the constitution. At the time of the elections there were also rumours that the Iraqi people cannot not use their right to elections but when eight and a half million Iraqis participated in the election and voted for a new National Assembly, it was proved that the Iraqi people are determined and insistent to have a democracy and democratic life for Iraq."

President Vaclav Klaus with President Jalal Talabani, photo: CTK
The main aim of Mr Talabani's visit to encourage economic, political and military co-operation. There are 100 Czech troops currently training Iraqi police recruits in southern Iraq, and the government in Baghdad is interested in extending that training to members of the Iraqi armed forces. Czechs are also training Iraqi judges and diplomats.

On the economic side, Iraqis hope Czech firms will take part in rebuilding the country's infrastructure, heavily damaged by years of war & sanctions. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Czechoslovak firms were involved in building more than half of Iraq's oil refineries. It's hoped that Czech firms will become involved once again, although the security situation - for the moment at least - is making that very difficult.

Czechs are also involved in restoring Iraq's battered cultural heritage. At a meeting on Tuesday Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda was due to hand over to President Talabani rare Iraqi documents which Czech scientists have helped to preserve.