BAGHDAD — The French foreign minister arrived in Baghdad on groundbreaking visit Sunday after years of icy relations with U.S. over Iraq.
Bernard Kouchner's plane touched down at Baghdad International Airport at about 6 p.m. His arrival was announced simultaneously by French authorities in Paris.
In Paris the foreign ministry said, Kouchner was in "Iraq to express a message of solidarity from France to the Iraqi people and to listen to representatives from all communities."
The motives behind Kouchner's visit were not immediately clear. But merely stepping onto Iraqi soil was a major symbol of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to turn the page on any lingering U.S.-French animosities over the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Kouchner arrived on the fourth anniversary of the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed U.N. special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 19 other people. The two men were personal friends.
Former French 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 also vilified in U.S. public opinion, with some Americans boycotting French wines, and French fries taking on the name "freedom fries" in the House of Representatives cafeteria.
Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke of a "New Europe" and an "Old Europe," with France squarely in the latter.
Chirac and U.S. President George W. Bush eventually reconciled, but Sarkozy's election in May was a fresh start. Sarkozy, nicknamed "Sarko l'Americain" for his admiration of the United States' go-getter spirit, met with Bush before he was elected and again for a casual get-together a week ago at the seaside vacation home of Bush's parents in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Sarkozy, however, has made clear that France will not be subservient. In his election night speech, he declared that the United States could count on France's friendship, adding, "friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions" and pushing for the United States to take the lead on climate change.
Like Chirac, Sarkozy saw the U.S.-led war in Iraq as a mistake. But Sarkozy says France has sometimes been arrogant in its approach to world affairs.
His appointment of Kouchner — the former U.N. administrator for Kosovo and co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders — suggested he wants to make France a stronger presence on the international stage.
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