Monday, November 16, 2009

France welcomes Iraqi leader for first state visit

PARIS (AFP) - France moved to raise both its profile and its profits in Iraq on Monday, welcoming President Jalal Talabani to Paris with a series of trade and aid deals ready for signing. Talabani will be treated to full ceremonial honours when he arrives at the Elysee palace later Monday for his first full state visit, talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy and a dinner in his honour. Iraq's red, white and black flag with its "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greater) inscription flew on the Champs Elysees, celebrating the improving ties between Paris and Baghdad. The pomp and circumstance for Talabani in Paris came after Sarkozy paid a brief visit to Baghdad in February, confirming an upswing in ties between Iraq and France, the country that led international opposition to the US-led invasion in 2003. "This state visit -- which is the first by an Iraqi leader -- is key," said Boris Boillon, France's new 39-year-old Arabic-speaking ambassador to Baghdad. "This is a country that is rebuilding. Some 600 billion dollars will be spent on reconstruction," said Boillon, who took up his post two months ago. "It has the world's third largest oil reserves, with production set to increase from two million barrels a day to eight or 10 million in the coming years. "There is a huge challenge from reconstruction of the entire country. France wants to be on the forefront," he told RTL radio. Two economic accords will be signed during the visit to allow the French state development agency AFD to open up offices in Iraq and to roll out poverty-fighting programmes. Another agreement will open the door to the Coface export-credit agency to underwrite risks for French companies clinching contracts in Iraq. France will also offer expertise to help the Iraqi national museum in Baghdad recover its collection, which was damaged and partially looted after the 2003 invasion. A separate agreement will touch on developing agriculture in Iraq. It is the first time that an Iraqi leader has been welcomed for a state visit to France. Saddam Hussein was never given the honour despite his strong ties with Paris. Accompanied by his wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, the 75-year-old Iraqi president will lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Tuesday and be feted by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a prominent member of the Socialist opposition. After meeting with lawmakers from both houses of parliament, Talabani will be the guest of honour at a dinner hosted by Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who led a business delegation to Iraq in July. On Wednesday, the Iraqi leader will meet with France's Medef business lobby and hold talks with leading executives. Under former president Jacques Chirac, France opposed the decision by the United States to invade Iraq to overthrow Saddam and relations have at times been tense with the new leadership in Baghdad. But since Sarkozy took power in 2007 there have been several exchanges of visits between the two capitals as France attempted to return to its status of Iraq's main business partner. "On the Iraqi side, a page has been turned, they have a good image of French businesses," said Denis Bauchard, a Middle East expert at the French Institute for International Relations. "The Americans are doing all they can to get a return on their investment, they are insistent, but the Iraqis want to avoid a situation in which they have only one overbearing partner." Baghdad has already ordered 25 French-built military helicopters and the French oil giant Total hopes to sign major new contracts to explore and drill Iraq's currently underdeveloped oil wealth. Boillon said French companies seeking a bigger stake in Iraq would find security has significantly improved, About 10 people die each day from bombings and attacks, down from 60 to 100 deaths a day between 2004 and 2008, said the envoy.

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