French navy begins rebuilding Iraq ties with port call

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At Iraq's southernmost tip, windswept sands and oppressive heat greeted a once-familiar visitor -- a French naval vessel, making port in the country for the first time in 32 years.

The FS Commandant Ducuing, which typically covers the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and along the shores of the Arabian Peninsula, on Tuesday docked at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr for a two-day goodwill visit as part of efforts to rebuild military ties between Paris and Baghdad.

Iraq, for its part, has ramped up security around Umm Qasr, and senior Iraqi naval officers and local sheikhs attended a ceremony marking the occasion.

"We are obviously in good hands here," said Captain Jean-Olivier Grall, the Ducuing's commander, as two Iraqi patrol boats kept watch in the Gulf and soldiers stood guard on the dockside.

"The purpose of this visit is to revive and rebuild the friendly relations of old between the French and Iraqi armed forces," the 34-year-old added.

The frigate's port call is the first by a French naval vessel since 1978 when the Bourdais docked here.

Since then, despite military cooperation between the French and Iraqi armed forces during the rule of Saddam Hussein -- the now-executed dictator purchased Mirage fighter planes from France and sent Iraqi pilots on training there -- no other French naval vessels have visited Iraq.

Now, Iraqi and French sailors hope to re-establish and develop that since-broken partnership.

"Insh'Allah (God Willing), in the future, we will put together a programme where our forces are trained by the French navy," Iraqi Rear Admiral Adel Hassoun said.

At present, however, the Iraqi navy is a fledgling enterprise, with just 2,000 sailors and nine speed boats to patrol the country's coast.

"It's tiny," admitted Captain Andy Aspden, a member of the British naval commando contingent responsible for training the Iraqi navy.

Asked whether the arrival of French ships for the first time since the US-led invasion ousted Saddam in 2003 posed a threat to British and American interests in the region, Aspden's reply was unequivocal.

"Not at all," he said. "This is what we want -- Iraq rebuilding its ties with other countries, with its neighbours. (The French visit) is great news."

Tuesday, however, was reserved for celebrations of the Ducuing's arrival -- France's sailors were decked out in immaculate white dress uniforms for a reception hosted by their Iraqi counterparts.

Senior Iraqi naval officers based in the southern port city of Basra, north of Umm Qasr, offered up qouzi, a traditional Iraqi dish made of freshly-slaughtered sheep and rice, while local media covered the event.

"It's been a very warm welcome," said Laurent Sergheraert, 44, the Ducuing's second-in-command.

"Among the sailors, there was initially a mixture of fear of the unknown and curiosity -- we're coming to a place we have not known."

Some, however, voiced regret that they were unable to leave the port and visit some of Iraq, a result of the brevity of the visit and the still-high levels of violence that make tours too dangerous.

"I would really have liked to see the rest of the country, I would have visited the Iraqis who live in the marshes," lamented Master Chief Serge Serret, a 47-year-old veteran of 30 years at sea.

© 2010 AFP

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