IRAQI PRESIDENT BRUSHES OFF FRENCH MEDIATION PROPOSAL
International Herald Tribune
August 22, 2007
President Jalal Talabani of Iraq brushed off a French proposal for reconciling Iraq's rival factions, saying in an interview published Wednesday that he would prefer French oil investment or reconstruction help.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France paid a surprise trip to Baghdad this week aimed at pulling France back into the Iraq debate and mending relations with the United States. Kouchner said he would push for greater French and international diplomatic roles in Iraq.
News organizations reported that he suggested staging a conference for Iraq's political leaders outside the country, along the lines of one he organized outside Paris in July for Lebanon's warring factions.
The Iraqi president, in an interview with *Le Monde*, said such a conference was not necessary.
"In Iraq, we speak to each other and we meet each other every day," he was quoted as having said in the newspaper interview. "Each community participates in the dialogue. We will find a way out without a conference."
The French Foreign Ministry shrugged off Talabani's comments. "The idea of holding an international conference is one among many," a spokesman, Denis Simonneau, said during an online briefing Wednesday. "It could only be held, at the appropriate moment, if the Iraqis wish it to."
Richard Grenell, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said that he was not familiar with the details of any proposed new French role in Iraq but added that "certainly, all assistance would be welcome."
Grenell said that, in any case, the newly reported French openness to help in Iraq should not be seen as a sudden shift. He said that in the years following the invasion of Iraq, the French "have always been very supportive" of U.S. and U.N. diplomatic measures regarding Baghdad.
France's European Union partners responded cautiously on Wednesday to Kouchner's call for Europe to play a bigger role in Iraq.
Britain, which has been the United States' closest ally in Iraq, welcomed the idea, but a Foreign Office spokesman said: "We'll wait to see what the French come up with." He added that "we obviously think the U.N. and the E.U. should play a significant role."
Officials from Spain, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands also said that their governments needed to see more concrete proposals, while Luís Amado, the foreign minister of Portugal, holder of the rotating E.U. presidency, was similarly cautious.
"I wouldn't like to comment on what I didn't hear," Amado said during a visit to Kosovo, although he added, "The problem of Iraq is a problem of the international community."
E.U. officials said they expected Kouchner to expand on his remarks at an informal meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Portugal on Sept. 7-8.
WITH SURPRISE VISIT, FRANCE CHANGES ITS TACK ON IRAQ
By Robert Marquand
** The French foreign minister's visit to Baghdad this week marks a thaw in France-U.S. relations. **
Christian Science Monitor
August 23, 2007 (posted Aug. 22)
[PHOTO CAPTION: Bernard Kouchner (r.) is the first French foreign minister to visit Baghdad since 1988.]
PARIS -- Partly to restore strained ties with ally America, and partly to deal itself into the strategic game on Iraq, France is opening a new chapter in the Persian Gulf.
In the European nation most publicly opposed to the Iraq war, media reaction in Paris on both the left and right appears to support new French offers to mediate among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions -- whose strife is paralyzing Iraq's day-to-day governance.
The offers were put forward by Bernard Kouchner, whose surprise visit to Baghdad this week was the first by a French foreign minister since 1988. They signal a significant change in France's tack on Iraq, offering the kind of diplomacy France used to inspire dialogue among ethnic and religious factions in Lebanon. They also come amid warmer U.S.-French ties under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who vacationed in New Hampshire this month.
France's sudden shift on Iraq "is almost as spectacular as the refusal of France to take part in the American intervention in Iraq," noted the left French daily Le Monde. "It is time to stop lecturing the Americans about their errors and start contributing to a solution."
In Baghdad Monday, Kouchner said "the Americans will not be able to get out of difficulty [in Iraq] alone," adding that "Europe must play a role . . . and I hope that other foreign ministers will come and visit Iraq." Kouchner, a popular left-wing politician in Sarkozy's right-wing government, said after his visit that "the Americans in Iraq seem unable to see what surrounds them," speaking of the ever-more complex and violent interethnic conflict.
FOREIGN MINISTER'S CREDENTIALS A PLUS
Analysts here say that a central factor in France's ability to quickly enter the Iraq fray is Kouchner's own credentials. He developed policies to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein's army after the first Gulf War, has close relations with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and played a pioneering role in the concept of "humanitarian intervention" in the 1990s.
Kouchner, who cofounded the Paris-based "Doctors Without Borders," is also seen as unconnected to French business and political circles that were closely involved with Mr. Hussein.
While a proactive position on Iraq by Paris is a significant step in Mr. Sarkozy's professed design to regain French traction in international affairs, the French role is purely diplomatic. No troops, major resources, or significant political capital are being committed. As such, the French public has not reacted sharply pro or con to news of a modest role in Iraq.
"This is a symbolically important indicator that the French want to be a positive presence rather than a spoiler. But no hard questions are [on the table]," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris. "If Sarkozy said he was sending 10,000 troops, people would go to the streets. But Kouchner, who is extremely popular, has gone to Iraq to signal that France will help if help is called for, and blessed are the peacemakers. Who can think badly of such positioning?"
U.S.-France diplomacy suffered considerably after former President Jacques Chirac tried to create an international consensus against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. French initiatives after 2003 were often blocked by the White House, and French influence in Europe itself was hamstrung by France's "no" vote on an E.U. constitution.
Since being elected president in May on promises to reassert France's proud internationalist tradition, Sarkozy has conducted an astounding array of diplomatic initiatives. He put France squarely into the effort to create a European constitution, helped Libya end its isolation by brokering a deal to release six Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, held a conference on Darfur with Chinese and American envoys, got a Frenchman named to head the IMF, continued France's central role in Lebanon, is taking a role on Kosovo independence, and has worked ardently to unfreeze U.S.-French relations.
"We are clearly turning a page here . . . it is a new chapter in French-American relations," the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Paris, Mark Pekala, told cable TV network France 24 earlier this month.
Commenting on an Iraq role for France, the rightist Paris daily Le Figaro argued on Aug. 21 that "The U.S. is looking for a solution . . . It is time to show that France, alongside Europe, is available."
Iraqi President Talabani, however, said he would prefer French investment and reconstruction help over diplomacy.