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Sarkozy pays first visit to Iraq

Nicolas Sarkozy speaking in Baghdad 10/02/09
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a tour of the Middle East

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has visited Baghdad for the first time, in a bid to rebuild ties and drum up business for French companies.

After talks with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, he pledged French support for Iraq's economic reconstruction.

It is the first visit by a French head of state to Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.

His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was a fierce critic of the US-led invasion.

Mr Sarkozy's visit is being seen as a major step in his efforts to rebuild ties with Iraq and the US after the French opposition to the invasion.

That opposition led to US boycotts of French products such as wine and cheese.

'No limits'

Iraqi officials have said that they want foreign companies to invest in Iraq, especially in the country's oil fields.

Mr Sarkozy said that was his wish as well.

"We say to French companies that the time has come to return to Iraq," he said at a joint news conference with Mr Maliki.

"I came to show France's willingness to take part in the economic development of Iraq, in the rehabilitation of its infrastructure. Our collaboration has no limits."

Mr Sarkozy is a very astute businessman and will be wanting to make sure France gets its share of the pie when contracts are signed to help reconstruct Iraq, says the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby in Paris.

Mr Talabani called the visit "historic". "It is our honour to welcome the French president, as he is a close friend of Iraqis," the Iraqi president said.

The visit comes as the US and its European allies seek to rebuild ties damaged by the invasion of Iraq under US President Barack Obama's predecessor, George W Bush.

Mr Obama is seeking to lessen the US commitment to Iraq while pressing European nations to boost their support for the mission in Afghanistan.

France did not contribute to the coalition invasion of Iraq, but the country has a contingent in Afghanistan which Mr Sarkozy strengthened last year.

Mr Sarkozy leaves Baghdad later on Tuesday to continue a tour of the Middle East that will also take him to Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

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