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FILE PHOTO - A still image taken from a video shows Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaking as he makes a statement in Baghdad, Iraq September 24, 2017. REUTERS/via Reuters TV(reuters_tickers)
By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - France appeared to backtrack on Tuesday on efforts to mediate between Iraq's government and Kurdish regional authorities, saying a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi would centre on bilateral ties and fighting Islamist militants.
Abadi is due in Paris on Wednesday for a two-day visit. While the invitation had been made prior to an independence vote held in Iraqi Kurdistan last month, President Emmanuel Macron's office on Friday issued a statement offering to help ease tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds.
That drew a response from Abadi's office on Saturday in which Iraqi officials made clear that the invitation was not related to the Kurdish independence referendum.
"President (Macron) ... recalled the importance of preserving unity and Iraq's (territorial) integrity while recognising the rights of the Kurdish people," the Elysee statement had said.
"With the priority to fight Islamic State and the stabilisation of Iraq, Iraqis must remain united."
But a statement issued on Tuesday by France's foreign ministry made no reference to the Kurdish referendum.
At a briefing by Macron's office ahead of the visit, senior officials repeatedly avoided answering questions related to the Kurdish crisis, saying the visit was important to boost bilateral ties, assess the fight against Islamic State and discuss general reconciliation in Iraq.
"At a time when the reconquest of territories held by Islamic State has seen considerable progress in the last few months, France wants to give the relationship with Iraq new momentum in all sectors and develop its cooperation, economic ties and political dialogue," the foreign ministry statement said.
A French diplomatic source said Paris' objective had been to try and get some form of dialogue going between the two leaders.
With the Kurds being isolated by regional powers Turkey and Iran and the United States taking a tough stance on last month's vote, there was an opportunity for Paris, which has good ties with both Baghdad and Erbil, to try to act as a go-between.
"The priority is to get dialogue going within the framework of the constitution," one diplomat said.
When asked on Tuesday whether France wanted to play a mediation role and had also invited Kurdish President Masoud Barzani to Paris, a French presidential source said it supported all efforts to get dialogue going and had not heard of any such invitation.
"You can sense there's a certain amount of embarrassment about this," said a second French diplomat.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Brian Love and Catherine Evans)