French President Emmanuel Macron is making a two-day visit to Iraq in what officials say is a show of support for the country as it struggles to maintain stability and to rebuild after years of war.
Mr Macron will begin his visit on Saturday by attending the Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership, a summit that brings together several foreign leaders in an attempt to ease tension in the region and to win much-needed support for Iraq.
France's president will also meet his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi, an official at the French embassy in Baghdad said.
The aim of the visit is to “support Iraq and Iraqi people", the official said. "This period is very important for Iraq as we are approaching the elections in October.”
Mr Macron “wants to express his support for Iraq and the political process and democracy”.
The parliamentary election on October 10 was brought forward from May next year, one of the key demands of pro-reform protests that engulfed the country in late 2019.
Later on Saturday, Mr Macron will visit the shrine of the eighth-century imam Mousa Al Kadhim in Baghdad, which is revered by Shiites, before heading north to meet officials in the self-ruled Kurdish region.
On Sunday, he will visit the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the crown jewel in ISIS's self-proclaimed state after the extremist group's onslaught in Syria and Iraq in mid-2014.
The city was recaptured in late 2017 by the US-backed Iraqi security forces, but at heavy cost. ISIS rule and the battle to retake Mosul left large parts of the city and surrounding areas in ruins. A lack of funds, political wrangling and corruption have delayed reconstruction efforts.
Mr Macron will talk to students of Mosul University and visit the Old City as well as Mosul’s main landmarks, Al Nuri Mosque and Al Saa’a Church.
By visiting Shiite, Sunni and Christian places of worship, the president wants to send “a strong message that France respects all Iraqi segments”, the French embassy official said.
The 12th-century Al Nuri Mosque and its complex, as well as Al Saa’a Church, are being reconstructed through a UAE-Unesco project.
The UAE has pledged $50.4 million to restore the Al Nuri complex and two old churches, Al Saa’a and Al Tahera.
Unesco launched its Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative in early 2018, a few months after Iraq declared victory over ISIS. It aims to restore the city’s landmark buildings and heritage sites, while also strengthening the educational system by repairing schools. With a focus on reforming curriculums and supporting local cultural initiatives, the project aims to revive the city’s intellectual life.
Iraq has been going through a difficult time since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed insurgency and sectarian warfare.
The country is caught in the middle as its main allies, the US and Iran, spar on its soil. The economy has also been hit by the falling price of oil and the coronavirus pandemic.
France did not play a major role in Iraq after the 2003 invasion but has increased its engagement since 2014, when it joined the US-led International Coalition to fight ISIS. French forces trained Iraqi troops and France offered financial support for humanitarian and stabilisation efforts.
In March, Iraq signed a preliminary agreement with French company Total that includes four projects to develop an oil field, produce gas, build large energy infrastructure and generate solar energy.
Total is expected to invest more than $7 billion in the projects, all of which are located in the oil-rich south of the country.
In February, the French company ADP Ingenierie signed an agreement with Iraqi Civil Aviation for the reconstruction of Mosul airport. Another company is in talks to build an elevated metro system in Baghdad.
Mr Macron’s visit is the second in less than a year. Last September he became the first western leader to visit Iraq since Mr Al Kadhimi took office in May after a chaotic period during anti-regime protests that forced the previous government to resign.
“Iraq is a very important partner for France,” the embassy official said.