BEIRUT, Lebanon – Baghdad will not make any moves to normalize relations with Israel before other Arab nations do so as part of a Mideast settlement, Iraq's interim prime minister said Monday.
The U.S.-backed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), also dismissed Arab press reports that Israelis established a presence in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion.
"Future relations with Israel are determined by two issues: international resolutions and a just and comprehensive peace that has been adopted by Arab leaderships, including the Palestinian leadership. Iraq will not take any unilateral action on a settlement with Israel outside those two frameworks," Allawi said.
He described as "absolutely false" Arab press reports that Israeli intelligence agents were operating out of Iraq.
"We regretfully hear reports in the Arab press that there are 10,000 Israelis and stories that Iraq is being used as a base for Israeli intelligence — this is inaccurate and false," he said. "Iraq and its territory will not be a base for any action hostile to any Arab country."
Arabs in their media and elsewhere have long speculated that the United States invaded Iraq to weaken a state seen as a threat to Israel and to allow Israel to make inroads in the Arab world. Toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (search) had been a vocal opponent of Israel and funded hard-line Palestinian groups.
Allawi also said an Iraqi government decision to remove the names of black-listed countries from new passports was misconstrued by the Arab press as permission to visit Israel.
"Our situation (now) is similar to any other Arab country," Allawi said.
Asharq al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, reported in a banner, front-page headline Monday: "Iraq cancels ban on travel to Israel."
Allawi, who arrived Sunday as part of an Arab tour, discussed security and economic issues with Hariri at a meeting earlier Monday. His talks in Lebanon also were to include a meeting with President Emile Lahoud and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Although Lebanon has no borders with Iraq, some Lebanese have made it to Iraq via Syria to fight U.S.-led coalition forces during the American invasion. Many Lebanese also went to Iraq to try to cash in on the reconstruction projects.
Iraqi officials hope close security coordination with Arab nations can curb violence in Iraq, but Lebanese officials have made clear they are not considering sending troops.
The return of hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraqi funds deposited in Lebanese banks before Saddam's overthrow last year also was discussed.
Hariri said the money was a matter between Iraqi state enterprises and Lebanese banks.
The new Iraqi government has confirmed the signatures and names on the accounts in question, Hariri said, adding that "the matter is between the banks and Iraqi enterprises, and the Iraqi side is satisfied with this result."
Last year, a U.S. Treasury official said Lebanon had $495 million in Iraqi funds. Lebanon has acknowledged it has Iraqi money, but has not said how much. Before Saddam's overthrow, Iraq's government and Lebanese companies were major trading partners.
Hariri also said the two countries were ready to reopen a pipeline from Iraq to Lebanon that has sat unused since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. But both sides said more discussions were needed with Syria, through whose territory the pipeline runs.
Hariri said the Iraqis expressed their "readiness and desire" to join a $930 million pipeline project connecting Egyptian Mediterranean gas fields to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and eventually Turkey and Europe.
He said Lebanon welcomes Iraqi gas into the network and the matter will be discussed with other Arab partners.
Allawi, on his first regional tour since taking office, has visited Jordan, Egypt and Syria and will later head to United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.