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Sarkozy on historic Iraq visit

BAGHDAD Jan 10 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a historic visit to Iraq on Tuesday and pledged to support the war-torn country’s reconstruction and help return it to economic prosperity.

Sarkozy’s surprise trip was the first ever to Iraq by a French head of state.

"I came to express the solidarity of France," Sarkozy told reporters at a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani, shortly after receiving a red carpet welcome in Baghdad.

"The French people were influenced a lot by the events that happened in Iraq," he said. "France will be beside Iraq, from the beginning, on the path to success. The world is in need of a strong, united and sovereign Iraq."

France deeply opposed the American invasion almost six years ago which ousted Saddam, a policy decision that left it at odds with the administration of then US president George W. Bush.

Sarkozy is on a regional tour that will also take him to Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, where he was due later on Tuesday.

His trip to the Gulf is intended to reinforce French influence, and although he is expected to sign agreements during the trip "he is not there to announce large contracts," the Elysee palace in Paris said on Monday.

Sarkozy said France would work with Iraq wherever it can to help repair the country’s battered infrastructure, in business as well as security matters.

"We seek cooperation in the economic field, energy, rebuilding, and to help the police, security and Iraqi military forces, as well as restoring the international position of Iraq," he said.

"You tell us what you want," Sarkozy answered, when asked by one journalist what he and France can do to help support Iraq’s journey towards peace and economic stability.

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The French leader will also meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Talabani called Sarkozy’s visit "historic," and paid tribute to the solidarity that France displayed towards Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion.

"This is a historic visit, as this is the first time for a French king or a president to visit Iraq," Talabani said.

"It is our honour to welcome the French president, as he is a close friend of Iraqis."

The visit by the French delegation – which includes Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner – comes 10 days after Iraq held provincial elections which saw allies of the Shiite Maliki triumph.

The largely violence-free polls were hailed by US President Barack Obama and other world leaders as a sign of progress in Iraq, amid a steadily improving security situation over the past year.

The French foreign ministry said the polls marked "a strengthening of dialogue and democracy."

Sarkozy’s tour followed a meeting on Monday in Paris with his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak.

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