After dividing bitterly over the war in Iraq, the European Union is coming together to assist in the country's post-war reconstruction. European countries have offered to help train security forces and other professionals to help Iraq establish a peaceful democracy. Lisa Bryant takes a look at one of the first European civilian training programs for Iraqis - which is being held in the working-class French city of Clermont-Ferrand.
The half-dozen students seated around a classroom table at the University of Auvergne do not look like the obvious vanguard for Iraq's new experiment in democracy. There is a former underground journalist who now writes publicly for an Iraqi newspaper. There is a man in charge of a committee to reintegrate members of the government of former dictator Saddam Hussein back into public service. And there is a man with sad, brown eyes who simply identifies himself as a director.
But these men have been chosen for one of Europe's first civilian training programs on ways to bring democracy and stability to war-torn Iraq. The 15-day course in Clermont-Ferrand, in central France - a city known for its Michelin tire industry rather than for expertise on Iraq - focuses on regional governance in France and in Europe.
Jean-Pierre Massias, a senior administrator at the university, a head of the training program, says the session aims to teach these Iraqi civil servants about local governance. That includes the rule of law - the students are learning about the French constitution for example. They are also learning things like checks and balances within the political system, and the importance of striking political compromises.
Mr. Massias has never been to Iraq, and this is the first time he has taught Iraqis. But he has had plenty of experience in former Soviet states, helping legal and political professionals make the transition to Western-style democracy.
That transition underway in ex-Communist states, he believes, is very similar to what is taking place in Iraq.
The training program here, in Clermont-Ferrand, reflects a larger shift in Europe from clashing over the war to helping establish peace in Iraq. Even France, a leading war opponent, wants to help out these days.
The French government has offered to train 1,500 Iraqi security officers outside Iraq, a proposal the new government in Baghdad is expected to accept. But Howard Leach, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to France, suggests the French could do more.
"They can offer to train more people," he said. "They can contribute funds to the reconstruction of Iraq. French companies can become involved in rebuilding the economic strength of Iraq. There are many different areas where friendly nations can help the Iraqi people rebuild their country and re-establish democracy there.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier says his government plans to offer greater aid in the future.
Speaking to reporters in Paris last week, Mr. Barnier said France is ready to go fairly far in offering economic, administrative and other assistance to Iraq.
The program at the University of Auvergne is a private initiative - the institution won a training bid posted by Iraq's interim government. The class was initially designed for Iraqi governors. But only one governor ended up on the final list of participants. The other students have a variety of backgrounds and government positions.
Auday Abed Awn, 33, works for Iraq's ministerial council. He was an opponent of Saddam Hussein, but says he does not blame France for opposing the effort to topple the Iraqi dictator.
Mr. Abed Awn says France was against the war for humanitarian reasons. Now, he says, France is opening its doors to Iraqis with training programs such as this one.
Mr. Massias and other program instructors say the Iraqis are very interested in European politics and ask a lot of questions.
Mr. Massias says many of the students are particularly concerned about how to ensure the Kurdish region in Iraq remains part of the country. He says they are particularly interested in efforts to grant regions like the Basque areas of France and Spain greater autonomy - without granting them full independence.
The university is expected to train another group of Iraqis in international affairs. But one of the main messages of this training course, Mr. Massias says, is how to build a new system that includes all of Iraq's political, ethnic, and religious factions. That, Mr. Massias says, is what democracy is all about.