BAGHDAD // The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made an historic visit to Iraq today and pledged to support the war-torn country's reconstruction and help return it to economic prosperity. Mr Sarkozy's surprise trip was the first ever to Iraq by a French head of state and the first by a European president since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. "I came to express the solidarity of France," Mr Sarkozy said at a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani, shortly after receiving a red-carpet welcome in Baghdad.
"The French people were influenced a lot by the events that happened in Iraq," he said. "France will be beside Iraq, from the beginning, on the path to success. The world is in need of a strong, united and sovereign Iraq." France deeply opposed the US invasion almost six years ago which ousted Saddam Hussein, a policy decision that left it at odds with the administration of then US president George W Bush.
Mr Sarkozy is on a regional tour that will also take him to Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, where he is due later today. His trip to the Gulf is intended to reinforce French influence, and although he is expected to sign agreements during the trip "he is not there to announce large contracts," the Elysee palace in Paris said yesterday. Mr Sarkozy said France would work with Iraq wherever it can to help repair the country's battered infrastructure, in business as well as security matters.
"We seek co-operation in the economic field, energy, rebuilding, and to help the police, security and Iraqi military forces, as well as restoring the international position of Iraq," he said. "You tell us what you want," Mr Sarkozy answered, when asked by one journalist what he and France can do to help support Iraq's journey towards peace and economic stability. The French leader will also meet the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr Talabani called Sarkozy's visit "historic," and paid tribute to the solidarity that France displayed towards Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion. "This is a historic visit, as this is the first time for a French king or a president to visit Iraq," Mr Talabani said. "It is our honour to welcome the French president, as he is a close friend of Iraqis." The visit by the French delegation which includes foreign minister Bernard Kouchner comes 10 days after Iraq held provincial elections which saw allies of the Shiite Mr Maliki triumph.
The largely violence-free polls were hailed by the US president, Barack Obama, and other world leaders as a sign of progress in Iraq, amid a steadily improving security situation over the past year. The French foreign ministry said the polls marked "a strengthening of dialogue and democracy." *AFP