Iraq and the EU have reinforced contacts over Iraq, initially strained by the US-led war against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, while Baghdad was courting minority Sunni Arabs yesterday to take a greater role in drafting a new constitution.
A senior US military source meanwhile said that insurgents had been dealt a major setback by Iraqi and US troops, now in the third week of a broad offensive, but warned that the frustrated rebels were far from vanquished.
A surprise EU visit on Thursday laid the groundwork for a June 22 conference on Iraqi reconstruction in Brussels that is to include representatives from around 85 countries.
The trip, qualified as historic by the European delegation, was led by Luxembourgian Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who takes over from Asselborn on July 1, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and external affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner completed the quartet. They met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and parliamentary speaker Hajem al-Hassani.
"We need to deepen and expand relations, because political support is something very important to us," Jaafari said later. "Ahead of the Brussels conference it is important for them to find out what the needs of the country are, our program, our ideas and our desire that aid is paid out quickly."
Commenting on who would contribute to the drafting of a new Iraqi constitution, Jaafari said: "We support our brothers, the Sunnis, getting a say on the committee, but within the framework and rules of the national assembly and in accordance with the demographic makeup of the country."
The US military source told reporters on Thursday that Operation Lightning, an ongoing sweep of the Iraqi capital and outlying areas, has reduced car bombings but has also increased other kinds of attacks.
"Car bombs are down, roadside bombs are down, we've captured around 1,000 suspects, but we can't declare victory," he said.
"Small-arms fire has increased while bombs have decreased. There are more drive-by shootings. We think that's another way, though much less effective, to keep up violence," he added.
Straw, whose country is the main US ally in Iraq, acknowledged that the war had divided EU members, but added: "there is a new spirit and we have put the past behind us to work for this new future of Iraq."
But ongoing violence underscored how tough that job might be.
Colonel Rahim Othman Said, head of an anti-corruption unit in the restive northern oil city of Kirkuk, and his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Ghanem Jayad Jabbar, were shot dead in a drive-by attack, police said yesterday.
And police Colonel Karim Mohammed Darraji and his brother Sami, also a policeman, died after gunmen opened fire in the relatively quiet southern city of Basra, police and a witness said.
Elsewhere, the bodies of 16 people who were killed execution-style were discovered in western Iraq, witnesses said yesterday.
Police said on Wednesday that 22 Iraqi soldiers from the mainly Shiite south were kidnapped after leaving their base in the town of Qaim, a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency located near the Syrian border.
It was not immediately clear if the victims, who were in civilian clothes and left in two different locations near Qaim, were those soldiers. Many were blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs.