Foreign Minister makes first visit to Iraq since invasion
19 August 2007 BAGHDAD - French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made a landmark visit to Baghdad on Sunday and offered his country's support to try to end the turmoil engulfing Iraq, in a fresh sign of improving US-French ties.
19 August 2007
BAGHDAD - French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made a landmark visit to Baghdad on Sunday and offered his country's support to try to end the turmoil engulfing Iraq, in a fresh sign of improving US-French ties.
Just a few hours before his arrival a barrage of mortar fire slammed into a Baghdad neighbourhood, killing 12 people, while Iraqi political leaders agreed on the agenda for a key summit to try to bolster the beleaguered government.
Kouchner's visit is the first by a French minister since the US-led invasion of 2003, which Paris vehemently opposed, putting a heavy strain on relations with Washington.
He offered to support efforts by Iraqis and the United Nations to halt the bloodshed.
"We are ready to be useful, but the solution is in Iraqi hands, not in French hands," he told reporters after talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyer Zebari.
Kouchner's three-day visit, so soon after President Nicolas Sarkozy made a fence-building trip to the United States, will be seen as a sign that France is ready to seek a role in Iraq and was welcomed by the White House.
"This is one more example, along with the new UN mandate, the neighbours' conference process and recent announcements by Saudi Arabia to open an embassy and forgive Saddam era debt, of a growing international desire to help Iraq become a stable and secure country," said US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
But Kouchner made it clear that France had no regrets about its original decision to oppose US intervention in Iraq, and insisted there could be no military solution to the conflict.
Shortly after his arrival, Kouchner visited the fortified UN compound in Baghdad to pay tribute to 22 people killed when the world body's former headquarters was hit by a powerful bomb exactly four years ago.
Among those who died was the head of the mission Sergio Vieira de Mello, a personal friend of Kouchner, and three UN officials who had worked with the French minister when he was the United Nations administrator in Kosovo.
Accompanied by Zebari and the UN deputy special representative in Iraq, Michael von der Schulenburg, Kouchner laid a wreath in front of a simple memorial to those killed in the blast.
Asked if the United Nations should play a bigger role in Iraq, Kouchner said: "I hope so. It is more up to the Iraqis than it is up to us. If it wasonly up to the French, the UN would play a very important role."
Later Sunday, he was to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who is due to leave on a three-day visit to Syria on Monday.
Maliki is battling to keep his crumbling Shiite-led coalition government intact after a number of political blocs, including the main Sunni group, staged walkouts.
On Sunday, he and the country's most senior political leaders concluded two days of talks during which they fine-tuned the agenda and the guest list for a summit Maliki has called in a bid to hold his coalition together.
"We reached agreement on a number of issues," Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said in a statement. "The most important is the agenda for the summit and who will attend the meeting."
The talks, which began on Saturday, brought together Maliki, Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Hashemi, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi, and Massud Barzani, president of the northern Kurdish region.
No date has yet been set for the summit but Talabani's office said it would probably take place "in a couple of days" -- though with Maliki out the country at least until Wednesday, it was unlikely to be held before late in the week.
Kouchner arrived just hours after an eastern Baghdad suburb was subjected to intensive mortar bombardment which, according to security and medical officials, killed 12 people and wounded 31.
An interior ministry official said the attack came during heavy clashes in the mainly Shiite suburb of Al-Obeidi between the US military and militiamen.
"Many mortars were fired. The area has been sealed off," the official said.
Since the US-led invasion, Iraq has plunged into an abyss of overlapping civil conflicts that have divided its rival religious and ethnic communities, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
The United States, which has deployed some 155,000 troops in its battle to staunch the bloodletting, claims Iran is fomenting the violence by arming and training militants and then sending them across the border to fight.
Tehran vehemently denies the allegations.
On Sunday, a top US general claimed for the first time that members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards are now active inside Iraq, training Shiite extremists in the use of rockets and armour-piercing roadside bombs.
Major General Rick Lynch, commander of US forces in central Iraq, told reporters that around 50 members of a covert Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit, the Quds Force, have hideouts in central provinces of Iraq.
"The border is porous and they come back and forth all the time... they are physically there," Lynch said.
Subject: French news