French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged European nations to rebuild ties with Iraq during an unannounced visit to that country on Tuesday. Mr. Sarkozy's trip marks the first ever to Iraq by a French leader - and a turnaround in French-Iraqi ties since the U.S.-led war began.

President Sarkozy's visit is being viewed as an effort by France to reassert its influence in Iraq, six years after Paris headed international opposition to the U.S.-led invasion to topple former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The French president was greeted by an honor guard in a televised welcome ceremony, held outdoors, despite cold winds in Baghdad.

In remarks to reporters after talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, the French leader urged other European countries to follow suit and come to Baghdad - and to help nurture Iraq's fledgling government.

In remarks carried on France 24 news channel, Mr. Sarkozy also praised Iraq for its efforts to get out of the impasse it has faced in the grips of a deadly insurgency. He said France wants to cooperate with Iraq in economic, energy and security matters. And he said the world needs a united and sovereign Iraq.

For his part, Mr. Talibani called Mr. Sarkozy's visit "historic."

President Sarkozy also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and praised Iraq for holding recent provincial elections without major violence.  Mr. Sarkozy encouraged French companies to come to Iraq and said a French business delegation would visit the country later this year.

Officials said France plans to build a new embassy in Baghdad and open consulates in the northern city of Irbil and the southern city of Basra.  

Mr. Sarkozy's predecessor, former president Jacques Chirac, was staunchly opposed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, leading to a low in French-American relations. Those ties have improved since Mr. Sarkozy, who is avowedly pro-American, took office in 2007.

France was once a key arms supplier to Iraq under Saddam's regime. French and Iraqi officials say the two sides are discussing new sales of military equipment.