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Iraq invites France back to build nuclear plant

"Because the future is nuclear" Iraqi electricity minister

Iraqi minister of electricy Karim Wahid invited France Sunday to resume its aid to Iraq to build a nuclear power plant, three decades after a Paris constructed reactor near Baghdad was bombed by Israeli warplanes. Enlisting France's help comes amid Iraq's struggle to fund its way to 24-hour power coverage.

"We have had very good relationships with French companies," the minister told AFP in an interview.

"I am willing to enter into contacts with the French nuclear agency and to start to build a nuclear power plant, because the future is nuclear," he said. "This is my perspective."

Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq sealed a 1976 deal with France to build the Osirak nuclear reactor, where construction started in 1979.

But in June 1981, during the Iran-Iraq war, Israel sent warplanes to bomb the unfinished reactor south of the Iraqi capital, charging that Saddam's aim was to build nuclear weapons.

Then French premier Jacques Chirac cultivated a special relationship with Iraq during the 1970s. As French president two decades later, he opposed the US-led invasion which toppled Saddam over alleged weapons of mass destruction.

I am willing to enter into contacts with the French nuclear agency and to start to build a nuclear power plant, because the future is nuclear

Karim Wahid, Iraqi minister of electricity

"France has not shown up yet (in post-Saddam Iraq). They will come hopefully," said Wahid, adding that France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Baghdad on February 10, had "been a good friend to Iraq."

"My coming here is to tell French companies: the time has come, come and invest," Sarkozy told a joint news conference with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on the first ever visit to Iraq by a French president.

Sarkozy said a large French business delegation would follow him to Baghdad by the end of the summer. Defence, energy and water were all key sectors for cooperation with Iraq, he said.

"We are ready to listen to the requests of the Iraqis.

My coming here is to tell French companies the time has come, come and invest

Nicolas Sarkozy, French President

French investments

Wahid also invited French companies to invest. "We have many projects to be announced for investments," he said, singling out "power generation investment called IPP," or independent power producers.

Sweeping away the Saddam era, the government last year sold and transported its uranium concentrate -- or "yellow cake," which is partially processed uranium ore -- to Cameco of Canada.

"We no longer need this material accumulated by the former regime," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told AFP.

Oil-rich Iraq, which has the world's third largest known reserves but whose budget has been hit by the slump in world prices, still has to clean up the last radioactive waste at the former plant.

We no longer need this material accumulated by the former regime

Al al Dabbagh, Iraqi government spokesman

Securing a budget

On the same day Wahid announced that Iraq faces a budget battle to restore its electricty to full coverage after the country managed to save the sector from further attacks.

"The minister of electricity urges everyone to help him with the budget for the new allocation for loans (to his sector) in order to rebuild Iraq," Wahid told AFP in an interview.

"Now we don't have any excuse for security," after the electricity system, already devastated by more than two decades of wars and sanctions, was the target of insurgents following the US-led invasion of March 2003.

He said the sector had not been attacked since last June and that the 18,000 kilometres (11,000 miles) of power lines around the oil-rich nation were being protected by the army and even aerial patrols.

Full coverage by 2012

But the focus was now on securing funds at a time when the 2009 budget has yet to be approved because of political feuding and amid a slump in world oil prices that has hit Iraq's predominant source of revenue.

"We are asking for seven billion dollars. We are getting one billion so far," Wahid said. "But I am hopeful."

If the contracts are carried out without being targeted for attack and with the necessary funding from the state budget, power supplies should be available for an average 12 hours a day for each household by June 2009, he said.

Around-the-clock power would be restored by 2011 or 2012.

The minister of electricity urges everyone to help him with the budget for the new allocation for loans (to his sector) in order to rebuild Iraq

Karim Wahid, Iraqi minister of electricity