UPDATE 2-Putin backs Russian push for Iraqi oil

* Kremlin leader meets Iraqi PM

* Gazprom Neft still interested in Kurdistan - sources

* LUKOIL open to new partner for West Qurna-2

(Recasts, Updates with meeting, sources, LUKOIL CEO)

By Gleb Bryanski

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia, Oct 10 (Reuters) - President VladimirPutin lobbied Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday to supportRussian energy investment, as the oil arm of gas export monopolyGazprom pushes for a foothold in the semi-autonomousregion of Kurdistan.

Gazprom Neft is still interested in Kurdistan'soil, company sources and the province's spokesman said,rebutting reports it had frozen projects in the Iraqi province.

Putin, a vocal opponent of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in2003, called for Russia to strengthen its presence in the OPECoil producer state at talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Malikiat his residence near Moscow.

"Our companies are boosting their activities in Iraq - thewhole list of our large energy companies," Putin said. "I hopetheir work will develop step by step and we are very much hopingfor your support, Mr Prime Minister."

Russia's second-largest crude producer LUKOIL isdeveloping the vast West Qurna-2 oil, while mid-sized Bashneft

is teaming up with Britain's Premier Oil PLCafter they won the right to tap oil in the Middle East country.

LUKOIL bought Norway's Statoil out of theirpartnership in West Qurna-2 in March, and CEO Vagit Alekperovsaid he would be open to taking on board a new partner.

"We bought it, 100 pct, if there is a good offer we can sellpart of it, so far we feel comfortable with it," Alekperov toldReuters. Asked if there was an offer in the works, he said "atthe moment no, only outline ideas."

Russia signed $4.2 billion worth of arms deals with Iraq onTuesday.


Late on Tuesday, the International Oil Daily cited Iraqi OilMinister Abdul-Kareem Luaibi as saying Baghdad had received aletter from Gazprom, in which the company said it had frozen itscontract with Kurdistan.

Baghdad has been angered by the plans of some internationalmajors, including ExxonMobil , to tap oil and gas in thenorthern region. The central government says the deals areillegal.

A spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said

Gazprom Neft had informed the KRG on Wednesday that it remainscommitted to its contract in the Kurdistan region.

Sources at Gazprom Neft also knocked down the report.

In August, Gazprom Neft acquired interests in two blocks inKurdistan.

"Gazprom Neft is still working on these projects. Thecompany keeps its interest in Kurdistan," a Gazprom Neft sourcetold Reuters.

Another source at the company said Gazprom Neft would beable to go ahead with the projects once the Iraqi centralgovernment and KRG resolve their differences.

He also said Gazprom Neft management will travel toKurdistan before year-end to discuss oil development in theprovince. A company spokeswoman declined to comment.

Gazprom Neft already has a project in Iraq, near the Iranianborder, where it expects to produce about 15,000 barrels per dayfrom 2013.

(Additional reporting/writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing byDouglas Busvine and Keiron Henderson)

((vladimir.soldatkin@thomsonreuters.com)(+7 495 775 1242)(Reuters Messaging:vladimir.soldatkin.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))