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Dec 5, 8:38 AM EST

Saudi oil minister talks of strengthening ties on Iraq visit

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BASRA, Iraq (AP) -- In the latest sign of improving relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's oil minister attended an energy conference in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra on Tuesday.

Khalid al-Falih said Saudi Arabia wants to expand investment projects in Iraq to include energy, manufacturing and natural resources.

"These are all considered important steps in bringing Iraq back to the Arab fold as well as to open Iraqi markets for international goods," al-Falih said. "We see our cooperation and coordination as very strategic and crucial for both of our countries. It doubles our success, growth and prosperity, again and again."

Iraq is looking for regional support as the country struggles to rebuild after ousting the Islamic State group from major cities and as it deals with an independence movement in its northern Kurdish region.

While Iraq remains a key Iranian ally, the United States has encouraged Baghdad to improve relations with Saudi Arabia to counter Tehran's influence in the region. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration views Iran as a regional menace.

Saudi Arabia's oil minister visited Baghdad in October, making a high-profile speech in the Iraqi capital calling for greater economic cooperation. That same month a commercial Saudi Arabian airliner landed at Baghdad airport for the first time in 27 years, and in August the two countries announced plans to open the land crossing along their shared border.

Iraq and Saudi Arabia have had strained relations since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iran gained wide influence over the Shiite-majority country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Tensions between Riyadh and Baghdad only began to thaw in 2015, when Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, followed by Iraq.

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