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Iraq warms up to Egypt in effort to boost image as Arab moderate

Just five years ago Iraq broke formal diplomatic links with Cairo when the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. Today, Egypt supplies Iraq with weapons, spare parts, and ammunition. An estimated 1 million Egyptians work in Iraq. Some even have joined the Iraqi Army in the war against Iran.

Last year Iraq and Egypt signed a five-year agreement providing economic and technical cooperation, banking assistance, and the establishment of a committee to oversee the interests of Egyptian workers here.

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Now there are rumors in Baghdad that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plans to visit soon, which could lead to a renewal of formal relations.

What is behind the new friendship?

According to Western diplomats, it is part of an overall Iraqi foreign-policy shift toward moderation and an effort to be seen as the chief protector of the Gulf region. It's no secret President Saddam Hussein has wanted to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of the Shah of Iran. Interviewed recently by an Arab newspaper, President Hussein made it clear that ''if Iraq were not strong, God forbid, the Gulf states would be affected.''

A growing list of countries seem to agree, notably Jordan, whose King Hussein has said he wants to strengthen support for Iraq in the war against Iran. The Jordanian leader, fearful of the spread of Khomeini fanaticism, has been in Iraq's corner since the war began.

Iraq's rapprochement with Egypt comes at a time of warming ties with the West , including the United States. On Monday, Iraq and the US renewed formal ties, signaling Baghdad's desire to strike a balance between the superpowers after years of tilting toward the USSR.