France shifts its stance on the conflict in Iraq
By Katrin Bennhold International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
PARIS: After years of shunning involvement in a war it said was wrong, France now believes it may hold the key to peace in Iraq, proposing itself as an "honest broker" between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.
The shift was one of the most concrete consequences yet of the thaw in French-American relations following the election in May of President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose administration no longer feels bound by the adamant refusal to take a role in Iraq that characterized the reign of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
During a three-day visit to Baghdad that ended Tuesday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said that the time had come for France, and Europe, to play a greater role in Iraq.
"I believe this is the moment. Everyone knows the Americans will not be able to get this country out of difficulty alone," Kouchner told the French radio station RTL on Tuesday before returning to Paris. "I really believe that depending on what happens here it will change the world."
"This is about having an opinion and knowing what positive things one can do and what role France can play in this region," he said, adding that Iraq was "expecting something" from France.
The United States broadly welcomed Kouchner's visit to Baghdad this week, saying it was evidence that the world was increasingly intent on bringing stability to Iraq. British and German diplomats also hailed greater French involvement in the country.
A senior official close to Kouchner explained that the French sought a role in political mediation in Iraq, and had no intention to enter the military conflict.
One of the options under consideration, the official said, is a peace conference that would bring Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish representatives around one table, modeled on a similar gathering that Kouchner organized for various Lebanese factions last month. Such a conference could be organized in France or in one of the countries neighboring Iraq, said the official, who declined to be identified because the issue was still under discussion.
Another possibility was shuttle-diplomacy led by Kouchner among the factions, the official said.
The French move carries the personal mark of Kouchner, who was one of the few French politicians who backed the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and whose longstanding and close relations with Kurdish and Shiite leaders have earned him credibility in the region. During his visit to Iraq, he held talks with religious and political leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, whom he has known for three decades.
"France in general and Bernard Kouchner in particular are uniquely placed to be a honest broker in Iraq," the French official said.
He did not rule out that France would at some point help train more Iraqi security forces or that French companies might participate in the country's reconstruction as part of a larger European initiative, but he stressed that this was not the focus of the current proposal.
Kouchner's trip, the first to Iraq by a French minister since the invasion in 2003, renewed interest in reports that the French oil company Total may seek a stake in Iraqi oil fields. This month, the French media reported that Total and one of its American rivals, Chevron, were seeking to jointly explore Iraq's fourth-largest oil field.
But Kouchner's office said that no executives had accompanied Kouchner to Iraq and that economic interests were not the focus of the trip.
Previously, France had limited its involvement in postwar Iraq to scrapping €4 billion, or almost $5.5 billion, in debt the country owed and using its permanent seat in the UN Security Council to vote for a greater role for the United Nations.
British officials, in particular, voiced their enthusiasm, saying they had barely discussed Iraq with their French counterparts over the past year, knowing that Paris had earlier had no intention of getting involved.
"This is a real bonus. Anything is better than nothing," said one senior diplomat. "Kouchner has the credibility and he knows all the players - with his record and his style, you can easily see him doing more negotiation between the parties."
But selling the idea to the French people may prove more difficult. Even within Kouchner's own Foreign Ministry, a number of diplomats remain skeptical toward his initiative, warning that it could put France and its citizens at greater risk from terrorist attack.
One French diplomat explained: "The prevailing view in a significant part of the French diplomatic community is that mediation in Iraq is futile and that the civil war needs to run its course and hand a decisive victory to one faction before the violence can end."
Meanwhile, political opponents of the French leadership jumped at the opportunity to criticize Kouchner, a founder of the aid organization Doctors Without Borders and a former UN administrator for Kosovo.
Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Socialist minister and presidential candidate, accused Kouchner of "repenting" before President George W. Bush for France's opposition to the war, and said the trip risked destroying France's diplomatic standing in the Arab world.
Nonetheless, in the French press a cautious consensus appeared to emerge on both sides of the political divide that it might be in the French interest to take a role in Iraq.
"France owed it to itself to return to Iraq," the conservative newspaper Le Figaro said in an editorial Tuesday. "You can shut yourself off for four years in the conviction to have been right but that doesn't increase the role our country plays on the international scene."
Or, as left-leaning Le Monde put it: "It's time to stop lecturing the Americans about their errors and start contributing to a solution."