After visit to Iraq, John Baird sets sights on repairing relations with U.A.E.

BAGHDAD – Fresh from establishing a new diplomatic beachhead in Iraq, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird turns his attention Tuesday to knocking down a contentious visa imposed on Canadians when he visits the United Arab Emirates.

Relations between Canada and the U.A.E. soured in 2010 over Canada’s refusal to grant Emirati airlines extra landing rights in Canada, a dispute that prompted the closure of a key Canadian Forces staging base outside Dubai.

The following year, the U.A.E. imposed a costly visa on Canadians visiting the country.

Diplomatic irritations were partially soothed last year with news that Canada will sell the U.A.E. nuclear technology. At the same time, the U.A.E. announced it would cut the fees for visas, though the requirement remains in place — for now.

The visa issue is expected to be part of Baird’s discussions with Emirati officials, although aides to Baird refused to confirm Monday whether progress would be announced.

On Monday, Baird paid an unannounced visit to Iraq, where he opened a new Canadian diplomatic mission.

Canada wants to expand its engagement with a country that’s become a pivotal force in a troubled region, and doing so requires a Canadian presence in Baghdad, Baird said in a statement.

“With conflict raging in neighbouring Syria, with the ayatollah’s regime relentlessly pursuing sectarian hegemony and nuclear ambitions, and with a NATO ally and economic partner bordering Iraq’s north, today’s opening here in Baghdad expresses Canada’s intention to expand our engagement with a key regional player.”

The new diplomatic office will be an offshoot of Canada’s embassy in Amman, Jordan, and will operate out of the British embassy in Baghdad, Baird said. Canada has not had an ambassador formally accredited to Iraq since 1991, although the embassy in Jordan was tapped to assume responsibility for Iraq in 2005.

The Baghdad office will be run by charge d’affairs Stephanie Duhaime, who served previously in Iraq, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Syria and who played a role in developing NATO and Canadian counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan in 2009-2010.

She is fluent in English, French and Arabic.

Baird acknowledged there are many challenges in a troubled country which lies at a crossroads of serious international security challenges.

“Today’s opening is a historic milestone in Canadian relations with Iraq and comes at a pivotal moment.” Baird said. “Ten years after the Iraqi intervention, Iraq is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, despite deep and lingering sectarian tensions.”

As Baird was holding meetings in a secure section of Baghdad on Monday, a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with fuel into a police station in Tikrit, north of the capital, killing seven officers.

Iraqi officials said at least 30 others were wounded.

On Sunday, at least seven more Iraqis were killed in attacks in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib and the western city of Fallujah.

Baird opined about the state of the Iraq’s sectarian woes saying:

“At this intersection also rests a principal fault line between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish identities, historically mired in sectarian conflict but with the potential of one day becoming a multi-confessional, pluralist society at peace with its neighbours, one where Muslims, Christians and other religious and ethnic groups will live in security and social harmony.”

Baird was in Jordan on the weekend before making his brief trip to Iraq. These stops are part of a broader tour of the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Cyprus and Israel.

Baird is the second Canadian minister to visit Iraq in less than a month after more than 30 years without any ministerial visits. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made a surprise trip to Baghdad in early March and met a number of senior officials.