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France Plays Host to Iraqi Leaders


The French government is playing host this week to more than a dozen Iraqi politicians, including Iraq's president, Ghazi al Yawer. Nearly two years ago, France led the coalition against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The French government now seems to be looking for ways to play a role in Iraq's political reconstruction.

Representatives of 14 Iraqi political parties are in Paris this week, at the invitation of the French government. They are meeting with French lawmakers, government members, jurists and members of France's media. Among the reasons for their visit, a French foreign ministry spokesman said, is an effort to show Iraqis how French democracy works on the ground.

Separately, Iraqi President Ghazi al Yawer is scheduled to have a luncheon meeting with French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday. Mr. Chirac has not invited Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to visit. Last year, Mr. Allawi indirectly criticized France for its allegedly hands-off approach to Iraq. Like several other European countries, Paris has refused to send troops to Iraq.

But Middle East expert Luis Martinez says this week's visits by Iraqi politicians signals Paris is open to a more active role in the future.

Mr. Martinez is an analyst at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. He believes France is unlikely to be influential in Iraq so long as the United States remains the key political force there. But he believes France and other European countries could play a vital role in Iraq's long-term reconstruction, like they did in war-torn Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Iraq's ambassador to France, Mowafak Abboud, also believes Paris can play a role in rebuilding his country.

"I think France can do what the Germans are doing now,” he said. “For example, the Germans are training the Iraqi military and police in Abu Dhabi [the United Arab Emirates]. And Germany has donated a number of military trucks to Iraq. So even with the French policy not to send its advisers, France can do the job outside Iraq."

Mr. Abboud also believes France could help in such areas as restoring sewage and water services, and reconstructing Iraq's health services.

The French government has already expressed interest in helping Iraq's reconstruction efforts. And last November, it agreed with other Paris Club donor countries to cancel 80 percent of the $33 billion Iraq owed them.

For the moment, however, it's unclear just what Paris or any other European country can do to calm the turmoil in Iraq. The short answer, according to Francois Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, is, very little.

"What bystanders can do in a Vietnam or Algeria-type war is not much,” he said. “Participate in a counterinsurgency campaign? That's not a great role to play."

Mr. Heisbourg believes it would take three times as many soldiers in Iraq as there are now to control the situation there. But some European countries with forces on the ground have recently announced they will be withdrawing their troops from Iraq. President al Yawer himself has also expressed misgivings over whether the upcoming elections should be held as scheduled on January 30.

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