French PM seeks to raise business profile in Iraq

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French Prime Minister Francois Fillon made a visit to Baghdad seeking to raise France's profile in Iraq.

Baghdad – French Prime Minister Francois Fillon made a lightning visit to Baghdad on Thursday with a delegation of officials and business leaders seeking to raise France's profile in Iraq.

"Iraqis were keen to remove themselves from American guardianship, and that is because they want to do business with other investors that they know well, among them the French," a Fillon aide told journalists.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said his country was looking forward to France playing a key role in its oil-dependent economy.

"Our country wants France to be a strategic partner, particularly in trade, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has indicated his desire to see bilateral relations grow significantly."

Fillon, whose country opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, arrived just two days after US troops withdrew from urban areas under a security pact that will see them leave the country by the end of 2011.

His visit also came after Iraq managed to close only one of several deals for foreign energy giants to participate in developing the country's extensive oil and gas resources.

An aide to the French premier said there is significant corporate interest in Iraq, although there are lingering concerns over security in a country that is still seeing deadly violence on a daily basis.

"Security is the major worry for the French," he said.

Even so, "if we had wanted, we could have brought along the entire CAC 40," he said in reference to the stock market index of France's major companies. "No one turned down an invitation."

Fillon, who spent just a few hours in the Iraqi capital, said: "No-one should fear the rise of Iraq. A peaceful Iraq, reconciled with itself, is a force for stability in the region."

Among those travelling with Fillon and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde were the heads of oil major Total, the Lafarge building materials group and European aerospace giant EADS.

After meeting Maliki in Baghdad, Fillon travelled to Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan to meet President Jalal Talabani who, the French prime minister announced, will make a state visit to Iraq in November.

Several memorandums of understanding were signed during Fillon's visit, chiefly on technical cooperation in domestic security and the military sector, an aide said.

France undertook to help Iraq in its application to join the World Trade Organisation and to support proposals for a trade partnership between Iraq and the European Union.

The French premier's trip follows a visit by Maliki to Paris in May, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in Iraq in February, on the first such visit ever by a French head of state.

AFP / Expatica

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