French minister’s visit signals change on Iraq

070525_update_liban_tetiere_kouchner1.jpgADRIAN CROFT / Reuters
BAGHDAD — French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner discussed investment projects to help rebuild Iraq on Saturday on a visit to the country whose 2003 invasion by U.S.-led troops Paris strongly opposed.

Mr. Kouchner began his two-day tour with a visit to the southern city of Nassiriya where he held talks with Shi’ite Vice-President Abel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist, and provincial governor Aziz Kadhim Alwan.

“The visit represents the re-engagement of France, and through it the European Union and the international community, in Iraq,” a French diplomatic official in Paris said.

The official said BAGHDAD Kouchner would inaugurate a new French embassy office in Arbil in northern Iraq.

France, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in July, has said it will lead a drive for greater EU involvement in rebuilding Iraq and has offered to host reconciliation talks.

It was Mr. Kouchner’s second visit to Iraq, nine months after he made the first visit to the country by a top French official since the beginning of the U.S.-led war.

Mr. Kouchner discussed the possibility of French companies investing in Iraq at the meeting with the Iraqi officials in Nassiriya, said Abdul Hussein Dawod, spokesman for the provincial governor.

He also visited a nearby archaeological site.

Mr. Kouchner told reporters in Nassiriya he wanted to encourage tourism to Nassiriya and that France was ready to invest in projects there if the Baghdad government agreed.

Mr. Kouchner was due in Baghdad later on Saturday where he was expected to hold talks with President Jalal Talabani and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani.


Former French President Jacques Chirac led international opposition to the invasion of Iraq, but new President Nicolas Sarkozy has sought warm relations with Washington since his election a year ago.

Mr. Kouchner, one of the few French politicians who backed military intervention in Iraq, was due to hold talks on Sunday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. Kouchner was forced to apologize last August for having said that Mr. al-Maliki should be replaced.

Mr. al-Maliki demanded the apology after Mr. Kouchner was quoted by Newsweek magazine as saying the Iraqi government was not working and that Mr. al-Maliki should be replaced, possibly with Abdul-Mahdi.

Mr. Kouchner, a co-founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, will also meet humanitarian groups and the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly. Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church practising an ancient Eastern rite and form Iraq’s biggest Christian group.

Earlier this year, Mr. Kouchner proposed granting 500 visas to Iraqi Christians whom he said suffered particularly in the country’s sectarian violence. However, Roman Catholic Cardinal Leonardo Sandri has said Iraqi Christians seeking asylum in the West should not receive special treatment based on religion.

A diplomatic source in Paris said on Friday not all Iraqi refugee families granted visas for France would be Christians.

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