04/01/2013 11:23 EDT | Updated 06/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Baird in Iraq to open 'historic' diplomatic mission

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird arrived in Iraq today under tight security to open a new diplomatic mission aimed at fostering trade with the troubled Mideast country that has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Baird landed in Baghdad in the morning by plane, marking the first trip to Iraq by a Canadian foreign minister since 1976.

As part of the mission, he is opening a diplomatic office that will be an offshoot of Canada's embassy in Amman, Jordan. The new office, however, will operate out of the British Embassy in Baghdad. It will be run by charge d'affairs Stephanie Duhaime, who had served in Iraq, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Syria and who played a role in developing NATO and Canadian counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan in 2009-2010.

"Today's opening is a historic milestone in Canadian relations with Iraq and comes at a pivotal moment," Baird said in a release Monday from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. "Ten years after the Iraqi intervention, Iraq is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, despite deep and lingering sectarian tensions."

Baird spent the morning in meetings with members of the Iraqi parliament. Media reports said he was guarded by heavy security, and his convoy also took him to the compound of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"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 release quoting Baird says.

Driven by 'strong' trade potential

Baird said he recognizes "Iraq is situated at the intersection of intrinsic international security challenges that affect us all."

However, he adds: "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."

He says his meetings in Iraq are driven by the "strong potential" of Canada's trade and investment interests in Iraq.

"To pursue our interests, we know that Canada needs to be on the ground in Baghdad," he says.

Iraq has been plagued for months by assaults staged by insurgents seeking to undermine the coalition Shia-led government's efforts to achieve security across the country. This past Easter weekend, for instance, dozens were killed in attacks on Shia mosques.

In early March, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made a surprise visit to Iraq to meet with al-Maliki, as well as the country's migration and environment ministers, to discuss bilateral trade, migration management, political developments in Iraq, the situation in Syria and minority rights.