BAGHDAD — Kuwait's prime minister discussed ties with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad on Wednesday, signaling improving relations between neighbors still working to overcome the more than two-decade legacy of war.
The warming bonds between Shiite-led Iraq and Sunni-ruled Kuwait are noteworthy in a region increasingly plagued by the sectarian divisions running through Syria's civil war and Iraq, which is struggling to contain its worst eruption of violence in years.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally greeted Sheik Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah on a red carpet on the airport tarmac before the two men sat down for talks. Officials later signed a series of agreements aimed at improving bilateral ties in the economic, transportation and other sectors.
The leaders hailed the latest set of talks – one of several high-level meetings between the countries in recent years – as the start of a new chapter in their relationship.
"We got rid of a heavy burden and turned the page from the past toward broader relations in all fields," Sheik Jaber said in a statement issued by al-Maliki's office.
Iraq and Kuwait, a close U.S. ally in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, have been making progress in mending ties frayed by then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of his southern neighbor, setting off the first Gulf War.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed "the growing momentum for the full normalization of bilateral relations between Iraq and Kuwait," U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said in New York.
Ban spoke to the Emir of Kuwait and al-Maliki before a meeting with ambassadors of the two countries Wednesday, del Buey said.
Officials on both sides expressed concern about the civil war ravaging Syria, where largely Sunni rebels are battling forces loyal to the Iran-backed regime of President Bashar Assad. The fight is drawing in foreign militants from Iraq and other countries on both sides of the conflict.
In response to questions about the civil war in Syria, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari repeated Baghdad's stance that it does not condone the movement of any militants to Syria. He sought to make clear that Iraq – officially neutral in the conflict – was not choosing sides.
"We have contacts with both the regime and the opposition," he said. "The fighters' travels are happening without the knowledge of the government."
There are signs that the aftereffects of Iraq's 1990 invasion are receding.
Relations took a step forward last year when Kuwait's ruling emir traveled to Baghdad to attend an Arab League summit. He was the only leader from the Sunni-dominated Arab Gulf states – wary of Shiite powerhouse Iran – to attend the meeting.
Kuwait and Iraq last year reached a deal to settle a Saddam-era legal dispute that had long dogged Iraq's national airline and was a major sticking point between the countries. Kuwait's parliament earlier this year approved the accord, under which Baghdad will pay $500 million in compensation to Kuwait's national carrier for damages caused during the Iraqi occupation.
The disagreement centered on Kuwait's accusations that Saddam's regime stole 10 airplanes and millions of dollars' worth of equipment and spare parts during the invasion. Kuwait earlier demanded $1.2 billion in reparations, but Iraq's postwar leaders resisted.
In February, an Iraqi Airways flight landed in Kuwait for the first time since Saddam's invasion. Officials hope the ceremonial flight will lead to closer commercial ties.
Iraq continues to pay off billions of dollars of war reparations to Kuwait. It expects to complete those payments by 2015, according to Zebari.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday, gunmen killed provincial election candidate Luay Abdul-Wahid in a drive-by shooting in the restive northern city of Mosul, according to police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to journalists.
Iraq held elections for provincial council candidates in much of the country in April, but authorities delayed voting in two Sunni dominated provinces, Anbar and Ninevah, citing security concerns. Mosul is the capital of Ninevah province. After Baghdad, it has been one of the hardest hit areas in terms of violence in recent months.
Iraq is weathering its worst wave of bloodshed in half a decade, with nearly 2,000 people killed since the beginning of April. The upsurge is reviving fears of a return to widespread sectarian fighting.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed.
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