How dangerous is Pope Francis' visit to Iraq? Thousands of Iraqi soldiers are on standby

With ISIS still planning attacks, Iran-backed factions launching assaults and protests taking place in the south, security remains fragile

Entire Iraqi cities will be locked down this weekend with the military out in force to ensure the safety of Pope Francis when he arrives on Friday for a three-day visit, security and Church officials told The National.

The leader of the Roman Catholic faith will meet officials and make public appearances in Baghdad, the southern cities of Najaf and Nasiriyah and the northern cities of Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh.

Given ongoing security issues – including an ISIS double suicide bombing in Baghdad in January – the military is taking no chances.

"There will be a solid security plan ...  in all cities the Pope will visit," said an Iraqi official in the team preparing the visit.

At the request of the Vatican, an Iraqi Airways flight will bring Pope Francis and his delegation from Rome. The Iraqi security forces will provide protection at all his stops, the source said.

US-trained special forces, known as the Golden or Special Division, will be in charge of protecting the Pope in all areas.

The federal police and army will form security perimeters around the elite forces.

Main streets will be blocked and only authorised persons will be able to move freely.

Unlike the nearly 50 countries Francis has visited since becoming Pope in March 2013, the security situation throughout Iraq is still fragile. Successive governments have struggled to maintain stability since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime 12 years ago.

ISIS cells are still able to launch lethal attacks more than three years after the group was driven from the areas it once controlled. Shiite militias regularly attack US bases and the Green Zone, home to government offices and diplomatic missions.

 

The Pope is not expected to visit downtown Nasiriyah, where anti-government protesters have clashed repeatedly with the security forces since October 2019.

It is unclear if the bloody uprising against corruption, nepotism, poor governance and unemployment will overshadow the pontiff's visit to Iraq's south when he visits the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham – the patriarch of the three great monotheistic religions.

Iraq's current stay-at-home measures to contain the Covid-19 virus are likely to be extended, officials said.

“That lockdown is expected to be extended to the end of the visit with a smaller number of exempted people in order to ensure security for the motorcade while it travels inside the cities,” one official said.

Because Iraq has been experiencing a surge in daily coronavirus infections since late January, the authorities reimposed strict national measures including a full lockdown on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

For the rest of the week, lockdown begins at 8pm and ends at 5am.

But owing to the added risk in Iraq, Pope Francis might not undertake some of his more customary practices when visiting countries.

Papal visits to the Middle East - in pictures 

The pontiff usually uses a specially designed bulletproof vehicle with a raised viewing area allowing him to see and be seen by crowds. This, however, might not be allowed in Iraq.

Three officials – two from the church and one at Baghdad International Airport – have ruled out using the so-called Popemobile.

Instead, he will greet crowds from inside an armoured vehicle.

The Pope usually stays at the residence of the Vatican's envoy to the country but officials have not said where the pontiff will reside.

Although the residence of Archbishop Mitja Leskovar is just outside the eastern edge of the heavily fortified Green Zone, the Vatican’s ambassador is currently in isolation within after testing positive for Covid-19.

Officials organising the visit could invite the Pope to stay inside the Green Zone or, possibly, at the presidential palace.

The 84-year-old pontiff has long expressed a desire to visit Iraq, the traditional home to many different Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Rite churches.

The late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq in 2000, but was unable to go after negotiations with the government of Saddam Hussein broke down.

For decades, Iraq was home to a vibrant Christian community, where different faiths lived in peace among the country's Muslim majority and enjoyed government protection.

But their number started to dwindle after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam and unleased extremism and violence in the country.

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