French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a surprise first trip to Iraq, urged other European leaders yesterday to follow his lead and rebuild ties with the country that were frayed by the US-led war.
Sarkozy — the first French head of state to visit Iraq since the 2003 US invasion — was received by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in a televised ceremony in Baghdad.
The French leader praised Iraq for successful provincial elections held last month without major violence, and he promised economic and political support for the country.
“The elections were very, very successful,” he said. “France believes in the unity of Iraq and the world needs a strong Iraq,” he said after meeting with Talabani.
Sarkozy has been seeking to re-establish ties with Iraq and shore up relations with Washington that were deeply strained by his predecessor’s opposition to the war.
Then-president Jacques Chirac’s refusal to back the US-led military effort in Iraq led to a new low in France-US ties. France was vilified in US public opinion.
Sarkozy urged other European leaders to help Iraq.
“We want to encourage all European countries to come,” he said. “It is in Europe’s interest to extend a hand here and to support the peace.”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who accompanied Sarkozy yesterday, made the first trip by a senior French official to the country on Aug. 20, 2007. Kouchner said at the time that Paris wanted to “turn the page” and look to the future.
The visit also comes as US President Barack Obama is seeking to bolster support for the military effort in Afghanistan as the US begins to draw down forces in Iraq.
On Monday, General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, met senior French officials in Paris to press for more military support for Afghanistan.
But the French have signaled they are reluctant to commit more troops to Afghanistan and want greater efforts toward a political solution to achieve stability.
French and Iraqi officials have said talks were under way on resuming sales of military equipment for weaponry that France sold Iraq back in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, a suicide car bomber struck a US patrol on Monday in northern Iraq, killing four US soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter in the deadliest single attack against US forces in nine months.
The blast occurred as US vehicles were passing near an Iraqi police checkpoint in Mosul.
A US statement said three US soldiers were killed at the scene. A fourth soldier and an Iraqi interpreter died of wounds at a military hospital, the US said.
An Iraqi police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said two Iraqi policemen and one civilian were wounded in the blast.
It was the deadliest single attack against US troops since May 2, last year when four Marines were killed in Anbar province.
The government announced on Monday that tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces had been stationed along routes leading to the Shiite holy city of Karbala to protect pilgrims.
Attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq, other Sunni insurgents, Shiite extremists and a Shiite cult have killed hundreds of people during pilgrimages in recent years.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims are expected to visit Karbala by Monday to mark the end of 40 days of mourning that follow Ashoura, the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein.