A new balancing act by France on Iraq

Posted in Europe | 14-Jan-05 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraq's interim President Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, left, shakes hands with French President Jacques Chirac after their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005.
Chirac tempers criticism of U.S. policy

PARIS President Jacques Chirac met his Iraqi counterpart for two hours of talks Thursday that were rich in symbolism but seemed to be poor in actual results.

The meeting with Ghazi al-Yawar gave Chirac the opportunity to signal that despite his vocal opposition to the U.S.-led war, France wants to help rebuild Iraq's institutions alongside America, government officials said.

Coming less than three weeks before elections in Iraq, Yawar's four-day visit in Paris showcases France's aim to restore its influence in a country with which it used to have significant trade links, as well as mend strained relations with both Baghdad and Washington.

But even though the French president reminded his guest of his country's long-standing offer to train Iraqi police forces outside Iraq, Yawar gave no indication that the offer would be taken up, an official close to Chirac said.

Relations between Paris and Baghdad have been icy in tandem with the tension that has characterized France's ties with the United States ever since coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003. As Chirac aims to position his country for another four years with the Bush administration in the White House, Iraq appears to be once again at the center of the two countries' relationship.

"This trip provides the opportunity to highlight France's determination at the highest levels to develop a dialogue with the Iraqi authorities," the French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Cecile Pozzo di Borgo, said this week.

Thursday's talks were low key, with no press conference scheduled. But at least symbolically, they seemed to begin a fence-mending exercise aimed as much at Washington as at Baghdad.

Yawar, who arrived in Paris Wednesday and plans to stay until Saturday, is the first Iraqi president to come to France on an official visit as long as officials at the Elysée Palace can remember.

Clad in a traditional long robe and white turban, he struck a conciliatory tone when he pledged to do everything to help free a French journalist to be taken hostage in Iraq. Florence Aubenas, a senior correspondent for the daily Libération, disappeared more than a week ago.

"The Iraqi government is in the process of doing everything in its power to obtain the release of this French journalist and her guide," Yawar said upon leaving the presidential palace after his luncheon with Chirac.

He also said that the two men agreed on the need to hold elections in Iraq on Jan. 30 as planned, despite ongoing violence.

"These elections will be 100 percent free and honest," Yawar said. They will "take place on the date set," he added.

This emphasis of a common position between the two presidents comes after a rocky few months between the two countries.

In November, Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, infuriated Chirac by referring dismissively to countries that had not supported the war in Iraq as "spectators."

Following that incident, Chirac left a European summit meeting the same month before a lunch meeting between Allawi and European leaders - allegedly to attend a memorial service in the United Arab Emirates for Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan Al Nahayan.

Yawar's visit was put off twice in the past five months before materializing this week.

While both Chirac and his foreign minister, Michel Barnier, have firmly denied any change in France's policy on Iraq, they appear to have softened their language on some of the main areas of controversy with the United States in Iraq.

Only a few months ago, French officials would still call for "an end to the occupation" and demand a concrete date for the withdrawal of coalition forces in Iraq. Thursday this demand was muted.

Paris stresses that it is ready to plan for a long-term cooperation with Bagdhad on issues ranging from education and health to archeology. French officials are also quick to stress that France is ready to pull its weight in the reconstruction of Iraq, pointing notably to its agreement to scrap €4 billion, or $5.2 billion, of debt owed to it by Baghdad.

But so far French goodwill has not won that much tangible appreciation.

While Germany has trained some 1,200 Iraqi police officers in the United Arab Emirates since March, a French proposal made in July for a similar effort has so far been ignored by Iraq.

"We explicitly renewed the proposal today, but there was no reaction," said one of Chirac's aides, who declined to be identified, after Thursday's talks.

Iraq's interim president will meet Barnier on Friday and then talk to lawmakers before leaving on Saturday.

Earlier this week, members of 14 Iraqi political parties met with Barnier and members of France's upper house of Parliament as part of a five-day fact-finding mission.