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France tries to 'turn the page' on Iraq

Foreign minister visits Baghdad

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari (center), greeted Bernard Kouchner yesterday in Baghdad. Kouchner's visit was the first by a senior French official since the Iraq war started. Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari (center), greeted Bernard Kouchner yesterday in Baghdad. Kouchner's visit was the first by a senior French official since the Iraq war started. (WATHIQ KHUZAIE/AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD -- France's foreign minister paid an unannounced and highly symbolic visit to Baghdad yesterday -- the first by a senior French official since the war started and a gesture to the American effort in Iraq after years of icy relations over the US-led invasion. Bernard Kouchner said Paris wanted to "turn the page" and look to the future.

A top American general, meanwhile, said Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard had 50 men training Shi'ite militiamen in remote camps south of Baghdad.

Kouchner said he was not in Iraq to offer initiatives or proposals but to listen to ideas on how his country might help stop the devastating violence.

"Now we are turning the page. There is a new perspective. We want to talk about the future. Democracy, integrity, sovereignty, reconciliation, and stopping the killings. That's my deep aim," Kouchner said after meeting with Iraq's foreign minister, Hosyhar Zebari.

"We hope that this visit will herald an increased level of engagement by France with Iraq, a level consistent with the activism of its foreign minister," Zebari said, pointing to Kouchner's humanitarian efforts as the former UN administrator for Kosovo and cofounder of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has received a Nobel Prize.

Kouchner drove from the airport in a heavily armored convoy, stopping first at the United Nations compound in the green zone at a memorial to victims of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. The attack killed UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, a friend of Kouchner's, and 21 other people.

Kouchner said he timed his arrival to mark the fourth anniversary of the attack.

Asked at a press conference whether France was now ready to help the Americans who are mired in Iraq, the top French diplomat demurred and said he was on a fact-finding mission.

"We are ready to be useful, but the solution is in the Iraqis hands, not in the French hands," he said, adding that "I'm not frightened of the perspective of talking to the Americans."

Kouchner later met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Shi'ite leader working to save his crumbling government, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

Kouchner's visit will doubtless be welcomed in Washington, where the Bush administration is facing a Sept. 15 deadline to report to Congress on progress in Iraq as a result of the infusion of 30,000 more US troops in the first half of the year. American public opinion and congressional sentiment is running against the US effort and some are calling for a timetable for withdrawing US troops.

Merely stepping onto Iraqi soil was a major symbol of the efforts of France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to end any lingering US-French animosity over the 2003 Iraq invasion.

The country's former leader, Jacques Chirac, refused to back the US-led military effort in Iraq, leading to a new low in France-US ties. France was also vilified in US public opinion, with some Americans boycotting French wines, and french fries taking on the name "freedom fries" in the House of Representatives cafeteria.

Chirac and President Bush eventually reconciled, but Sarkozy's election in May was a fresh start. Sarkozy, nicknamed "Sarko l'Americain" for his admiration of the United States' go-getter spirit, met with Bush before he was elected and again for a casual get-together a week ago at the seaside vacation home of Bush's parents in Kennebunkport, Maine.

In east Baghdad, a mortar barrage slammed into a mainly Shi'ite neighborhood, killing 12 and wounding 31, police said, and a major battle raged north of the capital where residents of a Shi'ite city were fighting what police said was a band of Al Qaeda in Iraq gunmen.

Hussein Saadon, 56, an owner of a small minibus station, was soaked in blood after he drove four victims of the mortar attack to the hospital. "It fills me with pain and anger to see an attack on such poor area where there is no presence of police nor army bases or checkpoints," he said.

Separately, Major General Rick Lynch, whose mission is to block the flow of weapons and fighters into the Baghdad area, said his troops are tracking about 50 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in their area -- the first detailed allegation that Iranians have been training fighters within Iraq's borders.

"We know they're here and we target them as well," he said, citing intelligence reports as evidence of their presence.

He declined to be more specific and said no Iranian forces have been arrested in his territory.