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(photo credit: AP)
The French foreign minister arrived in Baghdad on Sunday in a highly symbolic gesture to the United States effort in Iraq after years of icy relations over the American-led invasion. Bernard Kouchner said Paris wanted to "turn the page" and look to the future.
A top American general, meanwhile, said that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard had 50 men training Shi'ite militiamen in remote camps south of Baghdad.
Kouchner said he was not in Iraq to offer initiatives or proposals but to listen to ideas on how his country might help stop the devastating violence.
"Now we are turning the page. There is a new perspective. We want to talk about the future, democracy, integrity, sovereignty, reconciliation and stopping the killings. That's my deep aim," Kouchner said in English after meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari.
Zebari called it a "notable milestone" in relations between the two countries.
"We hope that this visit will herald an increased level of engagement by France with Iraq, a level consistent with the activism of its foreign minister," he said, pointing to Kouchner's humanitarian efforts as the former UN administrator for Kosovo and co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders.
Kouchner drove from the airport in a heavily armored convoy, stopping first at the UN compound in the Green Zone at a memorial for victims of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 19 other people. The two men were friends.
Kouchner said he timed his arrival to mark the fourth anniversary of the attack.
He also gave a nod to calls to have the UN play a more active role in Iraq's future.
"I believe that part of the solution, part of the beginning of the whispering of a drop of solution might be going through the UN system and we are ready for that," he said.
Asked at a news conference if France was now ready to help the Americans who are mired in Iraq, the top French diplomat demurred and said he was on a fact-finding mission.
"We are ready to be useful, but the solution is in the Iraqis' hands, not in French hands," he said, adding "I'm not frightened of the perspective of talking to the Americans."
He later met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Shi'ite leader struggling to save his crumbling government, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
Kouchner's visit will doubtless be hailed in Washington, where the Bush administration is facing a September 15 deadline to report to Congress on progress in Iraq as a result of the infusion of 30,000 more US troops in the first half of the year. American public opinion and Congressional sentiment is running against the US effort and there are many calls for a timetable for withdrawing US troops.
Merely stepping onto Iraqi soil was a major symbol of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to end any lingering US-French animosity over the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Former French President Jacques Chirac's refusal to back the US-led military effort in Iraq led to a new low in France-US ties. France was also vilified in US public opinion, with some Americans boycotting French wines, and French fries taking on the name "freedom fries" in the House of Representatives cafeteria.
Chirac and President 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.
In east Baghdad, a mortar barrage slammed into a mainly Shi'ite neighborhood, killing 12 and wounding 31, police said, and a major battle raged north of the capital where residents of a Shi'ite city were fighting what police said was a band of al-Qaida in Iraq gunmen.
Separately, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, whose command includes the volatile southern rim of Baghdad and districts to the south, said his troops are tracking about 50 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in their area - the first detailed allegation that Iranians have been training fighters within Iraq's borders.
"We know they're here and we target them as well," he said, citing intelligence reports as evidence of their presence.
He declined to be more specific and said no Iranian forces have been arrested in his territory.
"We've got about 50 of those," he said, referring to the Iranian forces. "They go back and forth. There's a porous border."
The military has stepped up allegations against Iran in recent weeks, saying it supplies militants with arms and training to attack US forces.
Iran denies the allegations and says it supports efforts to stop the violence.
The Bush administration is moving toward blacklisting Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "terrorist" organization, subjecting at least part of the entity to financial sanctions, US officials said this week.
A decision has been made in principle to name elements of the corps a "specially designated global terrorist" group, but internal discussions continue over whether it should cover the entire unit or only the Guard's Al-Quds force, the most elite and covert of Iran's military branches, which has equipped and trained Muslim fighters outside Iran's borders.
Lynch, whose mission is to block the flow of weapons and fighters into the Baghdad area, said Sunni and Shi'ite extremists have become increasingly aggressive this month, trying to influence the debate in Washington before a pivotal progress report on Iraq.
He singled out the Shi'ite extremists as being behind rising attacks using armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which he said were largely assembled in Iraq from parts smuggled in from Iran. He also noted a marked increase in Iranian-rockets that have been increasingly effective against US bases.
There has been an overall decrease in attacks against US and Iraqi forces, as well as civilians, south of Baghdad, but 46 percent of those were being carried out by Shi'ite extremists, Lynch said.
"The real difference now is we've got to spend as much time fighting the Shi'ite extremists as Sunni extremists," he said.