PARIS, Aug 27: President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday called for a clear timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq as he outlined an assertive role for France in other world hotspots.

Making his first major foreign policy speech since taking office, Sarkozy recalled that France had opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 but that it was now ready to help the international community bring about a political solution.

“A clear horizon must be defined concerning the withdrawal of foreign troops,” Sarkozy said in the address to French ambassadors from 180 countries.

“It is the awaited decision on this issue that will force the players to weigh their responsibility and organise themselves accordingly,” he said.

The address came after Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was forced to make an embarrassing apology for suggesting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stand down.

Kouchner took French foreign policy in a new direction last week when he paid a visit to Baghdad, offering to help stabilise the country and mediate between the warring communities.

Maliki had angrily demanded an apology on Sunday from Kouchner after he was quoted in the US magazine Newsweek as saying: “I just had (US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) on the phone 10 or 15 minutes ago, and I told her, ‘Listen, he’s got to be replaced.’”

“If the prime minister wants me to excuse myself for having interfered in Iraqi affairs in such a direct way, then I do so willingly,” Kouchner told French radio RTL.

Describing the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme as “undoubtedly the most serious crisis before us today,” Sarkozy said France was determined to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb, saying a nuclear-armed Iran was “unacceptable”.

The statement stood in contrast to his predecessor Jacques Chirac who in February admitted in an interview that a nuclear-armed Iran may be inevitable, sparking consternation in western capitals which had maintained a tough line with Tehran.

Sarkozy held out the prospect of rewarding Tehran if it backs down.

“France will spare no effort to convince Iran that it has much to gain by engaging in serious negotiations with the Europeans, the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians,” he said.

Turning to the Middle East, Sarkozy asserted that he was a “friend of Israel” but that he also had good relations with Arab governments.

He served notice that France would not allow a “Hamastan” to emerge in the Palestinian territories after the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the radical group in June.

“We cannot resign ourselves to this outcome,” said Sarkozy.

Avoiding a clash between Islam and the West is the “first challenge” facing French diplomacy in the 21st century and security agencies in western governments must work in “total cooperation” to combat terrorism, he asserted.—AFP

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