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Sarkozy makes surprise Iraq visit

PARIS (JTA) — Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president to visit Iraq in a surprise stopover during a Persian Gulf tour.

Tuesday’s visit came as Sarkozy forged ahead to assert French influence on the Middle East and internationally.

Sarkozy said he hoped to strengthen and re-establish French ties with the Iraqi government and people.

"France wants to be at the front row of friendship with the new Iraq," Sarkozy told reporters and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to a transcript of the news conference on the French presidential Web site.

"Our collaboration has no limits," he added after speaking to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and urging Europeans to invest in Iraq, which recently held peaceful elections in a sign of new stability.

"The doors are open to France," said al-Maliki of his country.

Sarkozy said a stronger Iraq "shouldn’t scare anyone."

His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had firmly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, leaving the United States and England with dominant presence in the region.

On Monday, Sarkozy met with the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss Hamas-Israeli peace negotiations and Gaza reconstruction. Over the weekend in Munich, he announced plans to rejoin NATO. France withdrew from NATO in 1966 under then-President Charles de Gaulle.

Sarkozy continued his tour Wednesday with a trip to Kuwait.

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