The head of the EU`s executive branch, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, suggested during a two-day visit to Brussels by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the framework energy agreement could be signed within weeks.
"Very soon, I hope, these [energy] negotiations are going to be concluded," Barroso told a joint press conference on April 16. "There are already very concrete details now on the table, and it is a matter of some weeks, I believe, to conclude these negotiations."
The accord could be signed in early May, when Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani will attend a seminar in Brussels.
It is arguably a new dynamic in recent EU-Iraqi relations-- one highlighting what Iraq can do for Europe as opposed to what Europe can do for Iraq.
One of the EU`s primary immediate interests lies in tapping into Iraq`s natural-gas reserves. Talks on a possible pipeline to carry gas across Turkey are at an advanced stage, and securing a deal with Iraq could boost the EU`s tottering Nabucco pipeline project, intended to provide the bloc with a direct link to Turkey and the gas-rich countries around the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Some of the EU`s hopes for Iraq have been held up by the Iraqi leadership`s inability to enact an oil and gas law, which could go some way to reassure would-be foreign investors. The law is also expected to help reconcile the interests of Iraq`s Kurdish region -- which commands vast reserves of oil and gas and sits atop the export route to Turkey and Europe -- with the Shi`ite and Sunni communities.
After arriving for his first-ever official trip to Brussels, which would also include a stop at NATO headquarters, al-Maliki told his EU hosts that Iraq`s parliament is "close" to agreeing on a final version of the oil and gas law.
The EU and Iraq are also negotiating a trade and cooperation agreement, which should lay down basic guidelines for economic and political cooperation between the two sides. It remains unclear when that treaty might be signed.
Al-Maliki sought with mixed success to assure the EU that the Iraqi security situation is improving.
He told the European Parliament`s Foreign Affairs Committee that he is "more confident than at any time before" that Iraq`s government is close to declaring a "final victory" over Al-Qaeda and its allies from the previous regime, various militias, and other criminal groups.
Asked when Iraq might be able to stand on its own two feet, al-Maliki offered seemingly contradictory messages.
He said that on the one hand, Iraq`s army and other security forces are strong enough to control the security situation in all of Iraq`s provinces. Al-Maliki called recent operations against militants in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and the western Al-Anbar Governorate a "prelude" for a comprehensive drive against insurgents across the country.
On the other hand, al-Maliki said, the withdrawal of U.S. forces is not imminent, and said their departure must be "organized and programmed."
"Iraq, which has managed to set up its new security forces and armed forces, is today capable of fighting all the elements that fight it outside the law," he said. "This Iraq has an army and security forces and is capable of facing all threats. When [it is ready to do so in full], soon, the foreign forces will have to withdraw."
While the ranking members of the European Parliament`s largest political factions gave al-Maliki a relatively easy ride, the frustration among rank-and-file deputies was palpable.
Marios Matsakis, a liberal Cypriot deputy, accused al-Maliki of embellishment or worse.
"Listening to you this morning describing the situation in your country, I thought you were talking about another country, not Iraq, because the reports we have daily from your country are completely different," Matsakis said. "In fact, there is violence, aggression, corruption, insecurity, terrorist activity, all continuing unabated. Your country is, in fact, in what I would consider to be a real mess."
Barroso, too, told reporters that the two men had a "very open exchange" -- frequently diplomatic code for divergent views -- on the current situation in Iraq. Barroso said he had "encouraged" al-Maliki to "continue working on several fronts to address the security situation -- strive to reduce violence, urge all Iraqi actors to work on national reconciliation, and establish a society based on the rule of law and respect for human rights."
The European Commission has pledged some $1 billion in aid to Iraq since 2003. There is growing concern within the EU that its money is being misspent or simply fails to make a difference as the security situation remains unpredictable.
Ahto Lobjakas, www.rferl.org