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ABU DHABI (Kyodo) Trade minister Akihiro Ohata made an unannounced visit to Baghdad Monday and called on the Iraqi government to resume negotiations with a group of Japanese firms to develop the Nasiriyah oil field, Japanese officials said.

A joint statement issued after Ohata met with senior Iraqi officials said the two countries agreed to reinforce cooperation, especially in the energy sector.

Ohata’s visit was the first to Iraq by a Cabinet minister since the Democratic Party of Japan took power in September 2009. Iraq established a new government in late December.

Iraq is as a major holder of proven oil reserves, but years of war have hampered development of its oil fields and oil production.

In August 2009, a Japanese consortium including Nippon Oil Corp. (which has since become JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp.) reached an accord in principle with the Iraqi government for rights to develop the Nasiriyah oil field.

But negotiations have effectively been suspended, partly because of the national parliamentary election Iraq held in March 2010.

Meanwhile, another consortium formed by Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., or JAPEX, and Malaysia’s state-run Petronas Carigali has won a contract to develop the Gharaf oil field, also in southern Iraq.

While Iraq has been open to foreign investment in oil field development and other projects to rebuild the country, Japanese companies appear to be cautious about participating in reconstruction activities in the war-torn country because of security and other concerns. Ohata’s visit is apparently aimed at encouraging Japanese companies to actively engage in business there.

While the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said Ohata was going on a six-day trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, his itinerary did not include a visit to Iraq. Ohata left Japan on Friday.

The trip to the Middle East is aimed at promoting sales of Japanese infrastructure technology, such as that related to nuclear power plants, and seeking stable oil supplies.

Japan relied on the Middle East for around 90 percent of its crude oil imports in fiscal 2008, according to the fiscal 2009 annual energy report.

Saudi Arabia was the biggest supplier, followed by the United Arab Emirates, it said.

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