Mon, Feb 24, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Chinese official visits Iraq amid rise in violence

AFP and Reuters, BAGHDAD

Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) arrived in Iraq yesterday in the first such visit since before the 2003 US-led invasion, the foreign ministry said.

It is “the first visit to Baghdad by a high-ranking Chinese official since 2003,” the ministry said in a statement on its Web site.

Wang and senior officials will discuss “developing bilateral relations and regional and international issues,” the statement said.

Oil is likely to be on the agenda, as Chinese firms PetroChina and China National Petroleum Corp have investments in Iraqi oil production — which accounts for the lion’s share of the Iraqi government’s revenue — and also because Baghdad is seeking to dramatically ramp up its oil sales to fund reconstruction of its battered infrastructure.

Iran may also be discussed, with China in the P5+1 group of world powers negotiating with Tehran on its controversial nuclear program.

Wang’s visit came a day after militants shot down a helicopter and briefly occupied a town in an escalating turf war against government forces that has killed at least 25 people in two days, police said.

All four crew members were killed when their helicopter was downed during a reconnaissance flight over the town of Karma in Anbar Province, where the Iraqi army is engaged in a standoff with anti-government fighters.

Sunni insurgents have been gaining ground in Iraq over the past year and in recent weeks overran several towns, raising the stakes in a conflict against the Shiite-led government that made last year the deadliest since sectarian civil strife began to abate in 2008.

Late on Friday, dozens of militants in SUVs drove into the small town of al-Sainiyah, about 180km north of Baghdad, after bombing the local police headquarters and fought troops for several hours overnight, witnesses said.

At least four policemen and two Sunni government-backed militia members were killed in the fighting, officials said.

The militants raised the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over government buildings in the town, recording their victory on video before withdrawing on Saturday morning.

Police sources said the militants came from Anbar, where the Iraqi army has been laying siege to the city of Fallujah and shelling it since early this year, when ISIL and other militant groups took over.

Tens of thousands have fled the city in recent weeks, fearing an all-out offensive to retake Fallujah, the site of some of the fiercest battles with US forces following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In a statement late on Saturday, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense said it was suspending military operations on Fallujah until 6am today to give local tribes another chance to expel militants themselves.

The ministry warned militants against taking advantage of the detente to carry out attacks against armed forces, civilians, government installations and hospitals to give the impression that the government had not kept its word.

Security officials say ISIL wants to divert security forces’ attention away from Fallujah as it looks for land to establish a Sunni state.

By Saturday, troops had regained control over most of Sulaiman Pek, while three villages near Sulaiman Pek remain under the control of militants, officials said.

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