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 Friday 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.
For all his political troubles at home, mainly over a sluggish economy, 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 Iraqi authorities and in coordination with its allies. The U.S. Central Command said Thursday 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.