Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

Macron talks nuclear energy and ways to control militias during Iraq visit

French president is the most significant leader to visit Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi came to power in May

French President Emmanuel Macron in Baghdad on Wednesday discussed solving Iraq's power cuts with nuclear energy and expressed support for Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi's push to contain armed groups outside the control of the state.

The French leader is the first western head of state to travel to the country since the new Iraqi government took office four months ago.

Mr Al Kadhimi said he discussed with Mr Macron "a future project" to use nuclear energy to produce electricity and solve decades-long power shortages.

He said the nuclear project would be under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and would create jobs.

In 1981, an Israeli strike destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor south of Baghdad, which was being built with French help.

If realised, the project would place Iraq with the UAE and Iran as the only Middle East countries with civilian nuclear power.

The country has long power cuts and imports gas from Iran to operate its dilapidated power stations.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey also have ambitions to become nuclear energy producers.

The electricity problem, along with collapse in other basic services and corruption and soaring unemployment, have contributed to mass discontent and a protest movement.

The authorities crushed the protests at the start of this year in co-operation with Iranian-aligned militias.

Mr Al Kadhimi has sought to create an independent foreign policy less governed by Iran since coming to power in May.

But his government has not managed to curb the sway of militants aligned with Tehran.

Mr Macron said all armed forces in Iraq should be "normalised", referring to a myriad militias supported by Iran outside the control of the government, but with associates and clients in the political system.

"There are many challenges to guarantee the sovereignty of Iraq, internally and in the region," Mr Macron said.

He said Iraq faced “foreign interference from multiple points".

European powers, with the exception of Britain, opposed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and have since shown little interest in the central government in Baghdad.

France and Germany have concentrated on building relations with the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

But France is a member of the international coalition against ISIS and Mr Macron said French soldiers are fighting "side by side" with the Iraqi military to ensure "the final defeat" of extremists.

Ali Shukri, an adviser to the Iraqi presidency, told the official news agency that Mr Macron would discuss issues related to the economy during his visit.

The Iraqi economy has been hard hit since February by the decline of oil prices.

Oil revenue, Iraq's main source of foreign currency, is providing about $2 billion (Dh7.34bn) a month, about $3bn short of covering public salaries.

French oil company Total operates in southern Iraq. It has also operated in the Kurdistan region since 2012.

It is a sensitive issue for Baghdad, which has had constant disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government over oil revenue.

Mr Macron's visit comes a day after he met leaders in Lebanon to press for reforms after the explosion at the Beirut port last month killed at least 190 people.

The trip was not announced publicly until Tuesday evening, with officials in Paris and Baghdad keeping it quiet for security reasons.

On his final night in Beirut, Mr Macron announced that he was flying to Baghdad "to launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty".

Updated: September 3, 2020 07:58 AM

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