French President Emmanuel Macron visited a revered Shiite shrine in the Iraqi capital late on Saturday, one of several stops in his two-day Iraq visit aimed at strengthening bilateral relations and showing support for the country.
The main reason for Mr Macron's visit to the country, the second in less than a year, was to attend the Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership regional summit.
This was co-organised by Paris and Baghdad to bring together rivals from the region in a bid to ease tensions and boost Iraq.
Shortly after the summit, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi accompanied Mr Macron on a visit to the gold-domed shrine of the eighth-century Imam Moussa Al Kadhim shrine in Baghdad’s northern Kadhimiya district.
Thousands of worshippers thronged to get a glimpse of the two leaders, with some approaching to shake hands and pose for selfies at the ornately decorated shrine.
In the shrine’s library, Mr Macron was heard asking curators if France can help in their efforts to preserve ancient books and manuscripts.
Then the French leader flew to Erbil, capital of the northern self-ruled Kurdish region, where he was greeted by the region's President Nechirvan Barzani.
Mosul heritage restoration
On Sunday morning, Mr Macron headed to Mosul, capital of northern Nineveh province. It was formerly the crown jewel in ISIS's self-proclaimed state, after the extremist group's onslaught in Syria and Iraq in mid-2014.
Nearly four years after ISIS was driven out, many parts of the city and surrounding areas are still in ruins, due to lack of funds, political wrangling and corruption, which has delayed reconstruction efforts.
Mr Macron toured Our Lady of the Hour Church, a Catholic church that suffered heavy damage during the rule of ISIS and in military operations to retake the city.
Inside the church, Mr Macron urged Iraq's religious communities to “work together” to rebuild the country, reported AFP.
“We will bring back a [French] consulate and schools,” he pledged, while criticising the pace of reconstruction in Mosul, where ISIS fought its last urban battle, as “too slow".
Mr Macron also made a stop at the site of Al Nuri Mosque.
ISIS destroyed it in June 2017, levelling its famed 12th century minaret, as Iraqi forces closed in on the extremists in Mosul's Old City.
Al Nuri Mosque and its complex, plus Al Tahera and Al Safa’a churches, are being reconstructed through a joint UAE-Unesco project.
The UAE has pledged $50.4 million.
UAE Minister of Culture and Youth Noura Al Kaabi thanked France for the “unwavering and continued support of global cultural heritage, marked by this historic visit to two of Mosul’s historic religious sites that are being revived by the UAE and Unesco".
Revive the spirit of Mosul
Unesco launched its Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative in early 2018. It aims to restore the city’s landmark buildings and heritage sites, while also strengthening the education system through repairing schools.
With a focus on reforming curriculums and supporting local cultural initiatives, the project aims to revive the city’s intellectual life.
Baghdad summit aims for co-operation
The one-day summit in Baghdad was attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Sheikh Tamim, the Emir of Qatar, as well as top officials from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
Ambassadors of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, members of the G20 group, the Gulf Co-operation Council and the Arab League were also present as observers.
The summit yielded no breakthroughs with regards to ongoing conflicts in the region or pending multi-billion-dollar deals between Iraq and a number of regional countries – including a Jordan-Iraq oil pipeline and an ongoing project to connect electricity grids between Iraq and Kuwait.
There were, however, notable side meetings between Iran and several countries, though not Saudi Arabia.
Baghdad has been hosting meetings between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in recent months but no major progress has yet been achieved.
The summit's final communique did not go into detail on topics discussed, suggesting significant differences among attendees on how to deal with regional crises.
Participants “acknowledged that the region faces common challenges”, and that the countries need “to deal with them on the basis of joint co-operation and mutual interests in accordance with the principles of good neighbourliness, non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, and respect of national sovereignty”, the communique read.
Iraqi officials hailed the summit as a success in their country’s efforts to reclaim a leading role in the region and to win support for post-war reconstruction efforts.