Reversing Course, France Seeks An Active Role In Iraq

Reversing Course, France Seeks An Active Role In Iraq
August 22nd, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Reversing Course, France Seeks An Active Role In Iraq

Reversing Course, France Seeks An Active Role In Iraq
New York Times
August 22, 2007
Pg. 9
By Katrin Bennhold
PARIS, Aug. 21 — After years of shunning involvement in a war it said was wrong, France now believes that it may hold the key to peace in Iraq, proposing itself as an “honest broker” between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions there.
During a three-day visit to Baghdad that ended Tuesday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said the time had come for France, and Europe, to play a greater role in Iraq.
“I believe this is the moment. Everyone knows the Americans will not be able to get this country out of difficulty alone,” Mr. Kouchner told the French radio station RTL on Tuesday before returning to Paris.
“This is about having an opinion and knowing what positive things one can do and what role France can play in this region,” he said, adding that Iraq was “expecting something” from France.
The shift was one of the most concrete signs yet of the thaw in French-American relations after the election in May of President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose administration no longer feels bound by the refusal to play a role in Iraq that characterized the reign of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
The United States broadly welcomed Mr. Kouchner’s visit to Baghdad this week, saying it was evidence that the world was increasingly intent on bringing stability to Iraq. British and German diplomats also hailed greater French involvement in the country.
A senior official close to Mr. Kouchner said that France sought a role in political mediation in Iraq, and that it had no intention of entering the military conflict.
One of the options under consideration, the official said, would be a peace conference that would bring Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish representatives to one table, modeled on a similar gathering Mr. Kouchner organized for Lebanese factions last month. Such a conference could be organized in France or in one of Iraq’s neighbors, said the official, who declined to be identified because the issue was still under discussion.
Another possibility was for Mr. Kouchner to embark on shuttle diplomacy among the factions, the official said.
The French move carries the personal mark of Mr. Kouchner, who was one of the few French politicians to back the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein before the American-led invasion in 2003, and whose longstanding relations with Kurdish and Shiite leaders have earned him credibility in the region. During his visit to Iraq, he held talks with religious and political leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, whom he has known for three decades.
“France in general and Bernard Kouchner in particular are uniquely placed to be an honest broker in Iraq,” the French official said.
He did not rule out the possibility that France would at some point help train more Iraqi security forces or that French companies might participate in the country’s reconstruction as part of a larger European initiative, but he stressed that this was not the focus of the current proposal.
Mr. Kouchner’s trip, the first to Iraq by a French minister since the invasion, renewed interest in reports that the French oil company Total may seek a stake in Iraqi oil fields. This month, the French news media reported that Total and one of its American rivals, Chevron, were seeking to jointly explore Iraq’s fourth largest oil field.
But Mr. Kouchner’s office said that no oil executives had accompanied him to Iraq and that economic interests were not the focus of the trip.
Previously, France had limited its involvement in postwar Iraq to forgiving almost $5.5 billion in debt that Iraq owed it and using its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to vote for a greater role for the international body.
Selling the idea of increased involvement in Iraq to the French people may prove difficult. Even within Mr. Kouchner’s Foreign Ministry, some diplomats remain skeptical of his initiative, warning that it could put France at greater risk of a terrorist attack.
As one diplomat explained, “The prevailing view in a significant part of the French diplomatic community is that mediation in Iraq is futile and that the civil war needs to run its course and hand a decisive victory to one faction before the violence can end.”
Political opponents of the French leadership jumped at the opportunity to criticize Mr. Kouchner, a founder of the aid organization Doctors Without Borders and a former United Nations administrator for Kosovo.
Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Socialist minister and former presidential candidate, accused Mr. Kouchner of “repenting” before President Bush for France’s opposition to the war and said the trip risked destroying France’s diplomatic standing in the Arab world.
Nonetheless, in the French news media a cautious consensus is emerging on both sides of the political divide that it might be in the French interest to take a role in Iraq.
“France owed it to itself to return to Iraq,” the conservative newspaper Le Figaro said in an editorial on Tuesday. “You can shut yourself off for four years in the conviction to have been right, but that doesn’t increase the role our country plays on the international scene.”
Or, as the left-leaning Le Monde put it, “It’s time to stop lecturing the Americans about their errors and start contributing to a solution.”

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