Sarkozy Urges Europe To Rebuild Ties With Iraq

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BAGHDADFrench President Nicolas Sarkozy, on his first trip to Iraq, urged other European leaders Tuesday to follow his lead and rebuild ties with the country that were frayed by the U.S.-led war.

Sarkozy — the first French head of state to visit Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that his predecessor opposed — was received by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in a televised welcome ceremony held outdoors despite gusty winds in Baghdad.

The unannounced visit was the first stop by the French president as part of a Persian Gulf tour that was to include travel to Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait.

The French leader, who also was due to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, praised Iraq for successful provincial elections held last month without major violence, and he promised economic and political support for the country.

"The elections were very, very successful," he said at a joint news conference after meeting with Talabani. "France believes in the unity of Iraq and the world needs a strong Iraq."

He said France can help Iraq with the economy, construction and much-needed electricity as well as training Iraqi security forces and diplomatic efforts.

Sarkozy, who was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, also urged other European leaders to re-engage with Iraq.

"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, nicknamed "Sarko l'Americain" for his admiration and support of the United States, has been seeking to re-establish ties with Iraq and shore up relations with Washington that were deeply strained by his predecessor's opposition to the war.

Then-President Jacques Chirac's refusal to back the U.S.-led military effort in Iraq led to a new low in France-U.S. ties. France was vilified in U.S. public opinion. Some Americans boycotted French wines, and french fries took on the name "freedom fries" in the House of Representatives cafeteria.

The French president said Tuesday that Iraq has made progress but faced "a struggle ahead" to secure the gains.

Highlighting the point, a bomb attached to a car belonging to one of the guards of Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi exploded near a hospital and less than half a mile (one kilometer) away from the French Embassy in central Baghdad on Tuesday morning, wounding the guard and two bystanders, police said.

Kouchner made the first trip by a senior French official to the country in August 2007, saying at the time that Paris wanted to "turn the page" and look to the future. He also traveled to Iraq in June.

The visit comes as President Barack Obama is seeking to bolster support for the military effort in Afghanistan as the United States begins to draw down forces in Iraq.

On Monday, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, met senior French officials in Paris to press for more military support for Afghanistan.

But the French have signaled they are reluctant to commit more troops to Afghanistan and want greater efforts toward a political solution to achieve stability.

France, a major global arms vendor and once a key supplier to ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, also has commercial interests in Iraq.

French and Iraqi officials have said talks were under way on resuming sales of military equipment, including helicopters and spare parts for weaponry that France sold Iraq back in the 1980s.

While Iraq's elections for powerful local councils were relatively peaceful, the announcement of preliminary results has been marred by allegations of cheating and concerns about a rise in ethnic tensions in northern Iraq.

A hard-line Iraqi Sunni Arab party that won nearly 50 percent of the vote in the province that includes the northern city of Mosul offered cooperation talks with Kurds.

Sunni lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi said Tuesday that his National Hadba Gathering would form an alliance with minority Shabaks and Yazidis and would reach out to the Christians and a rival Sunni party to join them.

He also said Hadba was ready "to start serious and intensive talks with the Kurdish list to deal with all the pending issues to pave the way for cooperation to rebuild the province."

U.S. officials have said rising Arab-Kurdish tensions have helped sustain the insurgency in Mosul, which remains one of Iraq's most violent cities despite an overall decline in violence nationwide. On Monday, a suicide car bomber struck a U.S. patrol in Mosul, killing four American soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter in the deadliest single attack against U.S. forces in nine months.