French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner publicly apologized yesterday "for having interfered in Iraqi affairs" for suggesting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stand down.
"If the prime minister wants me to excuse myself for having interfered in Iraqi affairs in such a direct way, then I do so willingly," he said on French radio station RTL.
Maliki on Sunday demanded an official apology from Paris after Kouchner indicated, in the online edition of Newsweek that the Shiite prime minister had to go.
"I just had [US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] on the phone 10 or 15 minutes ago, and I told her, `Listen, he's got to be replaced,'" Kouchner was quoted as telling Newsweek.
"Many people believe the prime minister ought to be changed. I don't know if that will go through, though, because it seems [US] President [George W.] Bush is attached to Mr Maliki. But the government is not functioning," he was quoted as saying.
Maliki angrily demanded an apology from France, saying: "In the past you backed the former [Iraqi president Saddam Hussein'] regime. Today we were happy with you and then you decided to support the former regime's loyalists."
Speaking yesterday, Kouchner said: "I believe that he [Maliki] did not understand, or that I did not stress enough that these had been remarks that I had heard from my Iraqi interlocuteurs."
While expressing his apologies, Kouchner added: "I am not alone in making some criticism in the face of a hotbed of tension and daily outrages that anger the world."
"I should have said, once again, and I repeat it, that these were remarks held by my interlocuteurs that I had just come from hearing. If they had been misinterpreted, I am sorry," he said.
In an op-ed article yesterday in the International Herald Tribune, Kouchner said France was ready to act as a mediator in Iraq, arguing that there could only be a political solution, not a military one.
He also appealed for the UN and Iraq's neighbors to take a more active role.