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Khurshid leaves for Iraq; oil imports to be top on agenda

In the first trip by an Indian minister in decades, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid Wednesday left for Baghdad on a two-day visit in a concerted effort by India to engage with Iraq at the highest level and deepen ties with the oil-rich country.

Khurshid's visit, which comes after a gap of more than two decades after the trip of then external affairs minister I.K. Gujral, is seen as a precursor to a series of high-level engagements between India and Iraq.

During his talks with Iraqi leadership, Khurshid is expected to discuss the issue of import of oil from Iraq.

Iraq is currently exporting more than USD 20 billion worth of oil to India. However, Indian exports are only a little more than USD 1 billion.

Official sources said that India's effort was to move from a mere buyer/seller relationship to explore possibilities of Indian investment in the upstream oil sector in Iraq and boost other opportunities for exports.

Following Khurshid's visit, it is expected that the Joint Commission between India and Iraq will hold its meeting in July in Baghdad under the chairmanship of the two countries' petroleum ministers.

The sources said Khurshid will also seek an early return visit to India by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

They said Khurshid is understood to be carrying an invitation from the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for an early visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to India.

Apart from Nouri al-Maliki, Khurshid is also scheduled to meet Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Rosch Nuri Shaways, Chairman of the Council of Representatives Usama al-Nujayfi and the Deputy Prime Minister incharge of Energy Hussein Shahristani.

He is also expected to interact with Indian community who number about 12,000.

People-to-people contacts between the two countries have picked up in recent times with more than 36,000 Iraqis visiting India last year, including those who come to India for medical treatment.

The sources said that current situation in Syria and election of a new president are among issues likely to figure in Khurshid's discussions with his Iraqi counterpart.