By Julien Ponthus
ON BOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE (Reuters) - France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is ready to be used to support military operations against Islamic State in Iraq, French President Francois Hollande told military personnel aboard the vessel on Wednesday.
"Thanks to the Charles de Gaulle we will have precious intelligence," the president said in a New Year's address, given as the carrier cruised off France's southern coast in the Mediterranean.
"We may also conduct operations in Iraq, if necessary, with even more intensity and more efficiency. The aircraft carrier will work in close cooperation with coalition forces."
France was the first country to join the U.S.-led coalition in air strikes in Iraq against Islamic State insurgents, who have also taken control of large parts of neighboring Syria during the course of the civil war there. However, it has ruled out striking the group in Syria.
It has about 800 military personnel, nine fighter jets, a maritime patrol aircraft and a refueling plane at its base in the United Arab Emirates as part of its "Chammal" Iraq mission, as well as an anti-aircraft warship in the Gulf. It also operates six Mirage fighter jets from Jordan.
France also has more than 3,000 troops carrying out counter-insurgency operations against al Qaeda-linked militants in the Sahel-Sahara region.
It has urged African nations to step up cross-border cooperation to tackle security challenges from Islamist groups in southern Libya to Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria as it seeks to scale back its military commitments on the continent.
Hollande reaffirmed that France would reduce the number of troops deployed in the Central African Republic, where it has handed control of peacekeeping operations to United Nations missions.
France had deployed 2,000 troops to curb Christian-Muslim violence in the country. This will fall to 800 by the autumn, he said on Wednesday.
A week after Islamist militants carried out a series of attacks in Paris, killing 17 people, Hollande said 10,500 military personnel would be deployed across France as of Wednesday evening to bolster domestic security.
The president added that the government needed to review the rate of cuts to French military personnel planned over the next three years to take account of security needs.
(Writing by James Regan; Editing by John Irish)