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France's Sarkozy Flies Into Iraq For First Visit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy has arrived in Baghdad on the first visit to Iraq by a French head of state since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which Paris strongly opposed.

Sarkozy, who was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, met Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and was due to hold talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, French and Iraqi officials said.

Sarkozy's unannounced visit was the first by a French leader since the invasion that plunged Iraq into years of sectarian warfare and insurgency. Tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died.

Iraq and the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush signed a security pact last year that calls for the last U.S. soldier to leave by the end of 2011, which would be almost nine years after the start of the war in March 2003.

President Barack Obama pledged during the U.S. election campaign to carry out a speedier pullout, and to withdraw the 140,000 or so U.S. troops still in Iraq within 16 months of taking office in January.

But U.S. military commanders favor a slower pullout that would not put at risk Iraq's recent security gains.

The violence that took Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war has fallen sharply in the last 18 months, and the country on January 31 held its most peaceful election since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi officials believe the time has come for foreign companies to invest, especially international oil firms.

Yet suicide and car bomb attacks are common and Sarkozy's visit, part of a Middle Eastern tour, was shrouded in secrecy.

"This visit was not announced for reasons of security," the French president's office said.

Renewed Commitment

The last high-level visit to Iraq by a French official occurred in May 2008 when Kouchner spent a few days in the country, in a sign of what Paris said was a renewed commitment to Iraq after its staunch opposition to the U.S.-led war.

France enjoyed relatively close relations with Iraq under Hussein, and former French President Jacques Chirac led international opposition to the 2003 invasion.

Sarkozy has sought warmer relations with Washington since his election in 2007.

A diplomat who was part of Sarkozy's delegation on his tour of Gulf states said the visit aimed to support Iraq's democratization and reconstruction and to "turn the page."

A visit to Iraq will play better in French public opinion now that Bush has left office. Bush's Iraq policies were very unpopular in France and anything that could be construed as support for them would have gone down badly.

Kouchner, one of the few French politicians who backed military intervention in Iraq, has previously had to apologize to al-Maliki after being quoted by "Newsweek" magazine as having called for him to be replaced.