Jordan’s King Abdullah II held talks Monday with Iraq’s prime minister after coming to Baghdad on an unannounced visit, the first by an Arab head of state since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Abdullah called on Arab governments to “extend their hand to Iraq” because a strong Iraq “is a source of strength for the Arab nation,” according to a statement released by the royal palace in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
An Iraqi government statement said Abdullah had “frank and positive talks” with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on relations between the two countries. Al-Maliki told the king that Iraq wanted to improve relations with all Arab countries, the statement said.
In turn, Abdullah expressed Jordan’s support for Iraqi “efforts to impose stability,” the statement added.
Ties between the two neighboring countries had been strained since the fall of Saddam because of Jordanian fears that Iraq’s Shiite-led government was too friendly with Shiite-dominated Iran.
Jordanian officials have been concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq and the loss of discounted oil, which Saddam once provided. Abdullah warned in 2004 about the emergence of a “Shiite crescent” including Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon — remarks that angered Iraqi officials.
But U.S. officials had been urging Abdullah to visit Iraq to bolster ties between the two countries as part of Washington’s campaign to shore up support for the Iraqi government as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
Al-Maliki visited Jordan in June for the first time in nearly two years, and since then, the two nations appear willing to put their differences behind them. During that visit, al-Maliki agreed to renew oil supplies to Jordan for the next three years at discounted prices.
Jordan agreed to ease restrictions on the entry of Iraqi students and those transiting to a third country. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have sought refuge in Jordan to escape the sectarian violence that swept the country two years ago but has receded.
Jordan has also named an ambassador to Iraq, joining other Arab countries that have agreed to upgrade their relations as the Iraqi government becomes more stable and security has improved — despite sporadic attacks and ongoing military operations.
Jordan shuns advance publicity
The Jordanians maintained an embassy in Baghdad — but without an ambassador — even though the compound was attacked in August 2003 in the first car-bombing of the Iraq war.
Monday’s visit had not been announced. An earlier trip set for last month was canceled because Jordanian officials did not want any advance publicity.
Iraqi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of Jordanian sensitivities, said the visit lasted only four hours and that the king left ahead of the announcement.
Iraqi officials have been eager to improve their ties with their Arab neighbors now that the government’s confidence has risen with improvements in security.
On Monday, about 250 Iraqi refugees were flown home from Egypt free of charge aboard the prime minister’s personal plane in what Iraqi officials said was an affirmation of improved security.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said such flights would continue “in order to fetch all families that wish to come back.”
More suicide bombings
Nevertheless, insurgent attacks continue, albeit at a much lower level than in recent years.
Northeast of Baghdad, a woman suicide bomber struck a market checkpoint in the Diyala province capital of Baqouba, killing at least one policeman and wounding 14 other people, including nine officers, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
The woman detonated explosives hidden under her traditional Islamic black robe as she approached the checkpoint manned by Iraqi police at the central market, witnesses said.
Another bomb exploded in the Wijaihiyah area, about 12 miles east of Baqouba, killing two women and wounding four people, including a child, according to the Diyala security operations center.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry announced Monday that al-Maliki had ordered the suspension of Iraqi military operations in Diyala for a week “to give gunmen a chance to surrender.”
But U.S. military spokeswoman Maj. Margaret Kageleiry said American troops in the province were not observing any pause and were continuing operations.
The prime minister’s office has announced an amnesty offer and unspecified monetary rewards for those who hand over weapons. Al-Maliki made amnesty offers during similar operations against Sunni and Shiite extremists in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, Mosul and the southern cities of Basra and Amarah, but they have had limited effect.
Also Monday, a bomb stuck under a car exploded in eastern Baghdad, killing the driver and wounding two other people, police said.