Iraq asks France to supply high-tech weaponry

BAGHDAD, June 1 Sun Jun 1, 2008 2:57pm EDT

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BAGHDAD, June 1 (Reuters) - Iraq is interested in buying sophisticated French weaponry to help re-equip its military as it moves to take over security duties from coalition forces, a government spokesman said on Sunday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki raised the issue in talks with visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who was on a two-day visit to Iraq, his second in nine months.

Much of Iraq's air force and military equipment was destroyed during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The army, which relies on U.S. military firepower in combating militants, has a few Soviet-era battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

"Iraq needs weapons from different origins and the prime minister expressed Iraq's willingness to import sophisticated weapons from France for both military and security forces," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters.

He did not say what equipment the Iraqi government was interested in buying from France.

The government has said in the past it needs helicopters, tanks, artillery and personnel carriers to supply its army and police in order to take over security from departing U.S. and other coalition forces.

The United States is helping rebuild Iraq's air force, whose fleet at the end of 2007 consisted of about 60 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters flying transport and reconnaissance missions.

France is a major exporter of arms and military aircraft with companies such as Dassault Aviation (AVMD.PA), Thales (TCFP.PA) and the Franco-German EADS EAD.PA.

An Iraqi cabinet statement said Kouchner had told Maliki France was ready to help train Iraqi security forces.

FRANCE READY TO HELP

France's stance on Iraq, after strongly opposing the U.S.-led invasion, has changed since President Nicolas Sarkozy took office seeking closer relations with Washington.

France, which takes over the EU's rotating presidency in July, has said it will lead a drive for greater EU involvement in rebuilding Iraq and has offered to host reconciliation talks.

Iraq had presented France with proposals for projects in areas such as health, education, reconstruction, electricity production among many others, Kouchner said.

"I think personally that the security situation is getting better ... and that French companies should take very great account of the precise proposals made to them," he told a news conference after talks with Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

"We agreed that there is an urgent need for France and French companies to be more visible in Iraq," Zebari said.

During his visit, Kouchner met President Jalal Talabani and visited the southern city of Nassiriya for talks with Shi'ite Vice-President Abel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist.

He also opened a new French consulate in Arbil in the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. (Writing by Adrian Croft, editing by Mary Gabriel)

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