Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Vive l' Irak!: France emerges as "Honest Broker"

Over four years ago, when the US was preparing to invade Iraq, it did so without the help of its oldest ally, France. Throughout the invasion and attempted stabilization process, France stayed very much on the sidelines, intent to watch the US struggle with an "I told you so attitude."

But all that was under President Jacques Chirac. There's a new shérif in town, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has promised to "thaw" the relationship between the two nations. To that end, the International Herald Tribune reports French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently took a three- day trip to Iraq. As Kouchner said: "I believe this is the moment. Everyone knows the Americans will not be able to get this country out of difficulty alone. I really believe that depending on what happens here it will change the world...This is about having an opinion and knowing what positive things one can do and what role France can play in this region," he said, adding that Iraq was "expecting something" from France.

Kouchner thinks he can be a big help in making a change for the better. Because they haven't been involved, France is in a unique position to be an independent broker in the region. Negotiations between Iraq's Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions could be led by France in the coming weeks, arrangements are reportedly being made. Kouchner was one of the few French politicians who actually supported the removal of Saddam Hussein and he has real experience and credibility in the region.

Meanwhile, the US and UK are welcoming France's presence in a big way. "This is a real bonus. Anything is better than nothing," said one senior UK diplomat. "Kouchner has the credibility and he knows all the players - with his record and his style, you can easily see him doing more negotiation between the parties."

Even French oil companies are getting into the act, as Total (France's largest oil company) and Chevron (its American rival) have prepared a bid to control Iraq's 4th largest oil field. But Kouchner has maintained that no oil executives traveled with him.

Now the foreign minister has the difficult task of selling his people on increased involvement in Iraq... and you thought bringing Sunnis and Shiites together was tough.

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