Official calls for economic cooperation

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Reaching out to Iran and other neighbors, a top Iraqi official called Tuesday for the formation of an economic security union designed to share water, energy and other resources, and mediate disputes among its members.

In outlining the proposal Tuesday at the U.S.-backed Institute of Peace, a think tank, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said informal discussions had begun with Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Jordan could join the group as well, and the Gulf states also might wish to participate, he said.

Al-Dabbagh said Iraq was motivated by "the necessity for regional security and economic cooperation." He said Iraq, second in the world in oil resources, was a logical promoter of a "new era of partnership and cooperation."

The proposal, he said, was modeled on the European Union, 27 independent European countries working together to promote political, economic and social cooperation.

Among the problems in Iraq's neighborhood are terrorism, border disputes and water shortages, al-Dabbagh said. In Iraq, he said violence and threat of a fracturing civil war were declining. The official said water supply in Iraq was plentiful, and he offered to share the essential resource with other countries.

In response to a question at a news conference he ruled out, without explanation, including Israel, an advanced economic state, in the group.

A State Department spokesman, Gordon Duguid, said, "We haven't seen this idea proposed formally."

"However," he said, "We supported the EU in its efforts, and other regional groupings. Any group that works for peace and development should be looked at."

Rusty Barber, director of Iraq programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said, "This is a vision of a very different Iraq than the world has got to know in recent times, a source of instability and a threat to the international community."

Barber, in an interview, said the proposal was "a vision for a different Iraq and one that is an enabler for stability in the region."

"Ambitious is the obvious way to describe it," Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of the Iraqi proposal.

"It is also an indication of Iraq's interest in becoming active in regional affairs once again," Clawson said in an interview. "Iraq once saw itself as a leader of the Arab world and now what the Arab government is saying, in part, is that Iraq wants to encourage cooperation of Arab states with its two most important non-Arab states, Turkey and Iran."

On a related issue, al-Dabbagh said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had assured Iran a recently approved security pact with the United States was not aimed at Iran.

Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988 in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the two sides were killed or missing.

The recently approved security pact provides for American forces to withdraw from Iraq by 2012.