France's Sarkozy visits Iraq, promising to strengthen ties

BAGHDAD — In a historic visit to Iraq, French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Baghdad Tuesday to bolster relations and build economic opportunities in the country, which is struggling to recover from almost six years of conflict.

"France wants to be first in the line of friends in the new Iraq," Sarkozy said at a news conference in the heavily guarded Green Zone compound in Baghdad.

Sarkozy, who's the first French head of state to visit Iraq, urged European allies to invest in the country, saying that it's en route to recovery after holding provincial elections free from major violence.

In an example of how the two countries plan to strengthen ties, Paris intends to build a new embassy and open consulates in Irbil to the north and Basra, a province that includes the country's southern oil fields and ports but has widespread poverty.

"The problem today is the economy, because the problems in the past were security and violence for a long time," Sarkozy said through a translator.

France has had little involvement in Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, openly opposed the military move, causing relations between the two nations to sour.

In the news conference on Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki welcomed Sarkozy's offer, saying Iraq couldn't rebuild itself alone. Maliki, however, also said that Iraq would no longer be bullied by the U.S. — a remark aimed at Vice President Joe Biden, who last week said that Washington needs to be more aggressive in promoting changes in Iraq.

"I believe that the talk about directing or pressuring the Iraqi government about its issues is over," Maliki said. "Iraq and its national government know their responsibilities and we are moving towards them."

Accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Sarkozy also met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

The trip comes more than a week after Iraq held provincial elections to fill 440 posts from a crowded race of more than 14,400 candidates. President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed the mostly peaceful vote, but tensions remain high in parts of the country and roadside bombings and mortar attacks still happen almost daily.

On Tuesday at 10 a.m., an Iraqi was wounded when a magnetic bomb blew up his vehicle in downtown Baghdad, Iraqi police said. The car belonged to a guard for Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. A civilian also was injured.

The northern city of Mosul remains volatile. On Monday, four U.S. soldiers were killed there in a suicide bombing, the largest number of U.S. troops killed in a single attack in Iraq since May.

(Daniel reports for The Miami Herald.)


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