BAGHDAD – French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on his first trip to Iraq, urged other European leaders Tuesday to follow his lead and rebuild ties with the country that were frayed by the U.S.-led war.
Sarkozy — the first French head of state to visit Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that his predecessor opposed — was received by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in a televised welcome ceremony held outdoors despite gusty winds in Baghdad.
The French leader praised Iraq for successful provincial elections held last month without major violence, and he promised economic and political support for the country.
"The elections were very, very successful," he said. "France believes in the unity of Iraq and the world needs a strong Iraq," he said at a joint news conference after meeting with Talabani.
Sarkozy, nicknamed "Sarko l'Americain" for his admiration and support of the United States, has been seeking to re-establish ties with Iraq and shore up relations with Washington that were deeply strained by his predecessor's opposition to the war.
Then-President Jacques Chirac's refusal to back the U.S.-led military effort in Iraq led to a new low in France-U.S. ties. France was vilified in U.S. public opinion. Some Americans boycotted French wines, and french fries took on the name "freedom fries" in the House of Representatives cafeteria.
Sarkozy urged other European leaders to help Iraq.
"We want to encourage all European countries to come," he said. "It is in Europe's interest to extend a hand here and to support the peace."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who accompanied Sarkozy on Tuesday, made the first trip by a senior French official to the country on Aug. 20, 2007. Kouchner said at the time that Paris wanted to "turn the page" and look to the future. He also traveled to Iraq in June.
The visit also comes as President Barack Obama is seeking to bolster support for the military effort in Afghanistan as the United States begins to draw down forces in Iraq.
On Monday, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, met senior French officials in Paris to press for more military support for Afghanistan.
But the French have signaled they are reluctant to commit more troops to Afghanistan and want greater efforts toward a political solution to achieve stability.
France, a major global arms vendor and once a key supplier to ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, also has commercial interests in Iraq.
French and Iraqi officials have said talks were under way on resuming sales of military equipment, including helicopters and spare parts for weaponry that France sold Iraq back in the 1980s.