French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met leaders from Iraq's bitterly divided communities yesterday, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged Paris to support his embattled government.
Kouchner, the first French minister to visit Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003, which Paris vehemently opposed, kicked off a busy schedule in talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, officials said.
He was also due to meet Talabani's Sunni and Shiite vice presidents, Tareq al-Hashemi and Adel Abdel Mahdi, as well as Massud Barzani, president of Iraq's northern Kurdish region, a diplomatic source said.
Soon after his arrival in Baghdad on Sunday, Kouchner offered his country's help to try to end the turmoil engulfing Iraq, in a fresh sign of improving US-French ties, but made no concrete proposals of support.
Instead, he described his visit as being a kind of fact-finding tour designed to reconnect France with Iraqi leaders.
"We are ready to be useful, but the solution is in Iraqi hands, not in French hands," he told reporters after talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
He repeated the message in a late night meeting with al-Maliki, stressing that he planned to canvas the viewpoints of Iraqis across the political spectrum during his three-day visit.
Meanwhile, al-Maliki arrived in Damascus yesterday for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on his first trip to the US' foe since taking office.
The beleaguered prime minister's visit follows a trip earlier this month to Syria's main regional ally Iran, countries both accused by the US of stoking the deadly violence engulfing Iraq.
Syria and Iraq only restored diplomatic ties last November, 26 years after they were broken under the ousted regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein over Syria's support for Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq.
The rapprochement paved the way for a week-long visit to Syria in January by Talabani, another formerly Damascus-based exile, who secured a promise from Assad to work to "eradicate terrorism."
It is Maliki's first visit to Syria since he became premier early last year, although he was based in Damascus in the 1990s when in exile during Saddam's rule.
Maliki, who is accompanied on the three-day visit by his ministers of oil, trade, the interior and water resources, is also due to meet Vice President Faruq al-Shara and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
The Iraqi prime minister is also due to discuss the plight of the 1.5 million of his countrymen who have sought refuge in Syria from the bloodshed at home.