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French Minister: U.S. Needs to Stay in Iraq

A U.S. pullout from Iraq would be "catastrophic," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Thursday, urging countries to take a strong united stance to stabilize Iraq.

De Villepin — whose impassioned speeches at the U.N. Security Council against U.S. plans to attack Iraq won him international praise — spoke at the close of two days of informal talks among foreign ministers from Europe and North Africa.

When asked whether he could envision the United States pulling out of Iraq, de Villepin responded, "Obviously, a pullout from Iraq today would be catastrophic and would absolutely not correspond to the demands of the situation."

He also said he and his fellow ministers favored a rapid transfer of power to the Iraqis: "We must ... define an approach that will truly allow the Iraqis to take their destiny in hand."

Car bombings in Iraq over the past week — one targeting the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad — have dealt a further blow to reconstruction.

The United Nations announced it was pulling its remaining international staff out of Baghdad. The International Committee of the Red Cross (search) and the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (search) also said they were cutting back on expatriate staff despite pleas from the Bush administration to stay.

President Bush said Tuesday the United States will not be intimidated by the suicide bombers.

European and North African ministers meeting at the Chateau d'Esclimont, a 16th century castle with turrets and a moat, also discussed how instability in Iraq was causing troubles at home.

The meeting of the "5 plus 5" grouping, created in 1990, brings France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Malta together with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.

The ministers also discussed the U.S.-backed "road map" plan to ease the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

"There is no alternative to the road map," de Villepin said.

Officials also prepared for the "5 plus 5" group's first summit of heads of state and government, to take place in Tunis, Tunisia, in December.

Libya did not send its foreign minister to the meeting, but the leader of its delegation spoke with de Villepin about an issue of contention between the two countries: compensation for the bombing of a French airliner in 1989.