On his first visit to Brussels as Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki said his country could help the EU break its reliance on Russian gas. But what are the real prospects?
Maliki spent the morning of Wednesday, April 16, conferring with various EU officials.
"We do hope this meeting will result in new steps of cooperation between Iraq and EU countries, especially regarding contributing to our oil and gas sectors," al-Maliki said.
The EU is, after the US, the second-largest importer of Iraqi oil and natural gas. But despite the country's immense natural resources, Iraq's energy sector is still struggling to recover from years of sanctions and damage wrought by war -- including, of course, the US-led invasion of 2003.
EU officials welcomed al-Maliki's remarks.
"Regardless of what attitudes one held at the beginning of the Iraq War, we now have a joint duty to contribute to the establishment of a peaceful and democratic Iraq," said EU Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering after meeting the prime minister.
And the head of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said a deal may not take long.
"It's only a matter of some weeks I believe to conclude these negotiations," Barroso told reporters at a joint press conference with al-Maliki. "There are already very concrete details now."
The EU's interest in Iraq goes well beyond idealistic talk about peace and democracy. Brussels is looking to the country to help diversify its own energy supplies -- in particular for its planned Nabucco pipeline from Turkey to Austria.
The EU hopes that the pipeline, which is scheduled to come online in 2013, will help ease its dependency on Russia, from which the bloc currently gets roughly a quarter of its natural gas.
But in order for the pipeline to be commercially viable, the EU must ensure it receives sufficient supplies of gas from the Middle East. Russia is skeptical about the bloc's ability to do that.
"The only way to fill Nabucco is to rely on Iranian gas," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizov, told reporters ahead of al-Maliki's visit. "But then it's up to West to make up its mind how to deal with Iran -- either bomb Iran or buy its gas."
But the EU hopes that Iraq will become politically stable enough to connect up gas fields in the west of the country, enabling Baghdad to supply gas to Nabucco.
Al-Maliki told EU parliamentarians on Wednesday that Iraq's policy of national reconciliation was proving a success and that he did not expect a sudden withdrawal of US forces, which might plunge Iraq into chaos.
He also that his country would soon pass long-awaited national gas and oil legislation that could provide the legal framework for closer ties between Iraq and the EU on energy.