Foreign Minister turns up in Baghdad

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Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Monday, to open a new representative office and meet Iraqi and UN officials. He also put in a good word for Norwegian state oil company StatoilHydro, which is among several oil companies bidding for Iraqi oil field rights.

“I have wanted to visit Iraq for quite a while, and I’m glad this visit was made possible,” Støre said. He said Norway and Iraq have been developing closer ties lately, and that Norway was in the process of establishing a diplomatic presence in the Iraqi capital.

Støre, who donned a bullet-proof vest immediately upon arrival, met his counterpart in Iraq, Hosiyar Zebari, and told him that Norway was setting up an office that could become an embassy. In the meantime, it will function as an extension of Norway’s embassy in Amman.

Støre also met with the government official in charge of human rights in Iraq, Wijdan Michel Salim, humanitarian organizations including the Red Cross (Støre once ran the Red Cross in Norway) and UN officials. He said he wanted to “be oriented about the democratic, social and economic development in Iraq, where much remains to be done but where there also has been progress.”

Lobbying for Norway’s state oil firm
His mission in Iraq also consisted of some clear lobbying on behalf of StatoilHydro, which is competing with oil companies like Shell, Chevron, Exxon, BP and Total for the rights to renovate and operate six oil fields and two gas fields over the next 20 years, reports newspaper Aftenposten .

Støre confirmed he had recommended StatoilHydro to Iraqi authorities. “The desire to promote Norwegian oil interests has been among the most important reasons that we’re opening up an embassy office in Baghdad,” Støre told Aftenposten .

Some experts have warned that StatoilHydro has underestimated the security risks and danger of doing business in Iraq, which has been hit by a new wave of violence prior to US troop withdrawal this week. Reidar Visser of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI (Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt) has advised StatoilHydro against getting involved in Iraq.

Støre responded that he is confident StatoilHydro “will itself be able to evaluate the political risks.”