In Baghdad, Sarkozy works to restore French-Iraqi ties
Pledges to play role in economic development
BAGHDAD - President Nicolas Sarkozy paid the first visit to Iraq by a French head of state yesterday, smoothing over lingering resentment about France's opposition to the war and positioning his country to cash in on lucrative arms and oil deals.
The visit, part of a Persian Gulf tour, took place as the Obama administration is preparing to draw down the 144,000-member US military force and signaled France's intention to play a diplomatic role in a region dominated by the United States.
"I want to underscore France's desire to participate in the economic development of Iraq, the rehabilitation of its infrastructures," Sarkozy told reporters after meeting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. "Our collaboration has no limits."
The French leader, who met later with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, praised Iraq for dramatic improvements in security, including provincial elections held last month without major bloodshed.
With signs of stability emerging, Sarkozy said France "wants to turn toward the future" as Iraq moves away from "the painful pages that it has been living through these past years."
He urged French companies to invest in Iraq and called on his fellow Europeans to follow the French lead.
"We want to encourage all European countries to come," he said. "It is in Europe's interest to extend a hand here and to support the peace."
Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, spearheaded the international campaign against the US-led invasion in 2003, angering both the United States and Iraqi exiles who later rose to power after Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime collapsed.
Many current Iraqi leaders, including Maliki, were unable to return to Iraq until the Americans and their allies toppled Hussein.
Nevertheless, Iraqi leaders appeared eager to forget the past and shore up their ties with a major European nation, easing their dependence on the United States.
Maliki alluded to that yesterday when a reporter asked for his reaction to comments made last week by Vice President Joe Biden, who told House Democrats that the new administration would be "much more aggressive in forcing" the Iraqis to resolve their political problems.
"The time for announcements is over," he snapped. "The Iraqi government knows its responsibilities."
Maliki also said the French would build a new embassy in Baghdad and open consulates in two Iraqi cities - Irbil in the north and Basra in the south.
"Soon a delegation of French companies will be visiting Iraq to discuss doing business in Iraq and not just in the areas of security and defense," Maliki told reporters, adding that Iraq's defense and oil ministers would visit France to discuss cooperation those fields.
France has been working to increase its influence in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East since Sarkozy took office in May 2007.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who accompanied Sarkozy on yesterday's visit, had made two high-profile visits to Baghdad since 2007 and has assumed a major role in ensuring stability in Lebanon after the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006.
Such moves have been a hallmark of French policy in the Middle East since France launched a major diplomatic effort after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, seeking to capitalize on Arab anger against the United States and Britain for supporting the Jewish state.
France developed extensive economic ties to Iraq in the early years of Hussein's regime, selling him millions of dollars worth of weapons during his eight-year war with Iran.
The French helped the Iraqis build an experimental nuclear station near Baghdad, which was crippled by an Israeli airstrike in 1981.
Relations soured when the French joined the US-led coalition that drove Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1991. Later, France campaigned strongly for the UN Security Council to ease international sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s.