PARIS — France is back at America’s side in conducting military strikes in Iraq.
More than a decade after spurning President George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein, France on Sept. 19 became the first country to join U.S. forces pounding targets inside Iraq from the air in recent weeks — this time in pursuit of militants of the Islamic State group.
Flying from the United Arab Emirates, two French Rafale jets fired four laser-guided bombs to destroy a weapons and fuel depot outside the northern city of Mosul, part of the territory the militants have overrun in Iraq and neighboring Syria, officials said.
An Iraqi military spokesman said dozens of extremist fighters were killed in the strikes. A French military official said a damage assessment had not been completed, while showing reporters aerial images of targets hit. Officials said it was at a former military installation seized by the group.
One analyst said the French action was more symbolic than substantive — France’s military means in the region are limited — but it could give political cover for other allies to join in and show that the U.S. is not acting alone in a country still sown with deadly violence 11 years after Saddam’s ouster.
“We are facing throat-cutters,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that was called to show support for Iraq’s government in battling the militants.
“They rape, crucify and decapitate. They use cruelty as a means of propaganda. Their aim is to erase borders and to eradicate the rule of law and civil society.”
For all his political and economic troubles at home, French President Francois Hollande has again showed he will use force to fight Islamic militants to help a beleaguered government.
Other such operations in Iraq would continue in coming days, Hollande said, “with the same goal — to weaken this terrorist organization and come to the aid of the Iraqi authorities.”
“In no case will there be French troops on the ground: This is only about planes that, in liaison with Iraqi authorities (and) in coordination with our allies, will allow for a weakening of the terrorist organization,” he said.
Hollande stressed that France’s actions were limited to supporting the Iraqi military or Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and wouldn’t involve targets in Syria.
Not so long ago, coordinated French and U.S. military strikes in Iraq might have been unthinkable. But feeding off sectarian strife in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has destabilized the region and become a lure for jihad-minded youths from France, elsewhere in Europe, and beyond.
Hollande says France is operating independently in Iraq, based on a request for airstrikes from Baghdad and in coordination with its allies. The U.S. Central Command said the U.S. military has conducted 176 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 8.
Broadly unpopular at home, Hollande has nonetheless drawn praise for a muscular foreign policy. Iraq is the third country in which he has authorized firepower: French troops largely purged al-Qaida-linked militants from Mali in 2011, and have sought to end sectarian violence in Central African Republic.
In 2011, France and the U.S., as well as Britain, did the heavy lifting in the NATO-led airstrikes in Libya. Last year, France was ready to join possible U.S. military action against President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, before President Barack Obama stopped short. In recent weeks, French authorities have ruefully suggested that the U.S. inaction fostered the rise of jihadists in the region.
On Sept. 15, Hollande hosted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and top diplomats from more than two dozen countries that pledged to help Iraq fight the extremist group, which has drawn widespread condemnation for its brutality — including the beheadings of Western hostages.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the Islamic State group in a Presidential statement approved by all 15 members in a session chaired by Kerry.
The statement expressed “deep outrage” at the killing, kidnapping, rape and torture of Iraqis and citizens of other countries by the Islamic State group. It noted that some of those acts might constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Since January, at least 8,500 civilians have been killed and more than 16,000 wounded in Iraq, according to U.N. estimates given to the council by Nikolay Mladenov, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq. Since June, he added, the toll had been 4,700 killed and 6,500 wounded.
Iraq’s new Foreign Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, called for military, economic and financial assistance to help Baghdad fight the Islamic State group.
The fall of Mosul on June 10 was a turning point in Iraq’s war against the group. The U.S.-trained Iraqi military, under pressure for months by small-scale attacks, buckled quickly when the militants advanced on the city.
The first French airstrikes in Iraq have additional significance: France, one of America’s oldest allies, was among the most vocal critics of Bush’s decision to conduct military action in 2003 that toppled Saddam.
Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s military, said the French airstrikes hit the town of Zumar, killing dozens of the group’s fighters. Hollande said France has taken precautions to prevent civilian casualties, and the French military official said the depot was located in a remote area.
Zumar and surrounding towns have remained heavily contested by Islamic State fighters, even as Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have managed to make headway in nearby regions with the support of U.S. airstrikes.
The French bombs fell within minutes of a ceremony in which Gen. Martin Dempsey, the U.S. military commander, laid flowers at a Normandy cemetery honoring thousands of U.S. troops who died in France in World War II. Dempsey said he was told of the attack by French counterpart Gen. Pierre de Villiers, and he praised the French action.
“The French were our very first ally and they’re with us again now,” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him in Normandy. “It just reminds me why these relationships really matter.”
At Friday prayers in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala, a representative for the most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said foreign help in the fight against the Islamic State group should not lead to a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
“The international efforts on this regard should not be used as a pretext to allow the foreigners to control the course of events in Iraq, especially in the military field,” Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie said. “It is true that Iraq is in need for the help of brothers and friends in combating the black terrorism, yet safeguarding its sovereignty and independence should be highly considered. This should be taken care of.”
France is conducting the operations in Iraq from French Air Base 104 inside Al Dhafra base near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. French jets began flying reconnaissance missions Sept. 15 over Iraq.
The base, with about 750 French service personnel and six Rafales, is 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles) from Mosul, meaning that the planes need refueling in flight to strike in Iraq.
For future operations, France could also mobilize its only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, which is docked in southeastern France and would need at least five days to reach the eastern Mediterranean. The ship can carry about 30 planes including Rafales, Super-Etendards and U.S.-built E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft.
Retired French Gen. Vincent Desportes said the French involvement, alongside far greater U.S. firepower, was more symbolic than militarily significant. But he said it could have a “snowball effect” by drawing in allies such as Australia or Canada to think more about participation.
“Three or four (French) airstrikes doesn’t change much,” said Desportes. “But it changes things in that it shows that the Americans are no longer alone.”
He also pointed to France’s tradition of supporting the U.S. in military ventures, including the deployment of more than 20,000 troops in the U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991.
“Aside from the case of the Iraq war — which was a stupidity — we have always been alongside the Americans,” Desportes said. “In this case, it seems to me very good that we’re cooperating.”
By Jamey Keaten. Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Robert Burns in Caen, France; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed