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France worried about terrorism at home
Updated: 2005-01-29 00:15

PARIS - The ongoing violence in Iraq "encourages terrorism," has created instability and has pushed some French youths toward holy war, France's defense minister said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie appeared eager to rebuild frayed French-U.S. ties, but expressed deep concern about the insurgency ahead of Sunday's election in Iraq.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie answers questions during an interview with the Associated Press, in Paris, Thursday Jan. 27, 2005. [AP]
She pointed to arrests this week of 11 French youths as part of an investigation into a network suspected of dispatching Islamic combatants from France to Iraq. One of the youths was later released.

"France cannot be satisfied with the situation in Iraq," she said in Thursday's interview. "What's happening in Iraq is bad for everyone. It encourages terrorism and creates a zone of instability that can spread."

Alliot-Marie expressed concern that the young French fighters "could one day carry out suicide attacks elsewhere ... that worries us." France itself could be targeted, she said.

France's DGSE spy agency, which works for the Defense Ministry, was active in helping counterintelligence agents ahead of the arrests, providing information on "routes of passage" to Iraq, the minister said.

She said she did not know how many French citizens were involved in the Iraqi insurgency but said that radical imams can play a key role, indoctrinating youths "until the day when they are moved into the stable of candidates for suicide bombings."

At least three French Muslims are known to have been killed in the insurgency in Iraq. While the number of French-born fighters in Iraq appears small — perhaps a dozen or more — officials in France worry that some of the men of mostly North African descent will return home with combat skills to wage jihad, or holy war.

With Iraq elections set for this weekend, Iraqis most of all need to feel a sense of sovereignty — and the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops could foster that sentiment, Alliot-Marie said.

"The less foreign military uniforms there are, the more they will have this feeling," she said.

The longtime alliance between France and the United States ran aground over Paris' vocal opposition to the war. Alliot-Marie stressed the need for "organized dialogue" between Europe and the United States.

Paris and Washington have shown a desire for a fresh start.

Alliot-Marie said President Bush's new administration has "extended its hand" to France and Europe "and we wish to extend our hand."

She also expressed worry about the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran. The European Union — led by France, Germany and Iran — is using its diplomatic influence in an effort to make sure that Tehran does not develop nuclear weapons.

Bush said last week his administration won't exclude the possibility of using military force against Iran over its nuclear program.

Tehran insists it wants nuclear technology for civilian purposes only, something the United States and some European countries doubt.

"What we want is to control very closely so that it does not transform into nuclear weapons," she said. "From the start, to hypothesize the failure of diplomacy is to ensure that we will fail."

Alliot-Marie, 58, who has been in the defense post for two years, is considered a rising star in French politics and there has been media speculation she could one day be prime minister. She will host France's first meeting of NATO defense ministers Feb. 9-10 in Nice.

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