Iraqi security forces fanned out across Baghdad and helicopters and drones whirred over the capital on Friday morning ahead of the arrival of Pope Francis on a historic visit.
The leader of the Roman Catholic faith was expected to land in Baghdad at 2pm for a four-day trip that will take him to the southern cities of Najaf and Nasiriyah and to Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the north.
Although the country is already under a full lockdown because of the growing number of coronavirus infections, checkpoints were set up in main streets to restrict movement to only security personnel, journalists, medical staff, employees of service departments and food suppliers. Sniffer dogs were being used at some checkpoints.
Security forces set out cordons in Baghdad’s Karrada district, where the Pope is scheduled to visit two churches to meet the Christian community and hold a Mass on Friday, with some officers posted on rooftops.
Iraqi and Vatican flags dotted the streets and main intersections of the capital, alongside posters of the Pope and billboards welcoming him as a “messenger of peace”.
Streets in the areas Pope Francis will pass through were resurfaced, flowers planted along the roads and murals of the Pope and Iraqi flags painted on the grey concrete blast walls surrounding churches and public buildings.
One of the billboards shows the pontiff and Iraq's senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, with doves holding olive branches above them and Mr Al Sistani saying: “You are a part of us and we are a part of you.”
In Najaf, where the Pope will visit the cleric, large posters of the two spiritual leaders are mounted on buildings and in streets leading to the Old City where Mr Al Sistani lives.
One depicts the two men with a famous quote from Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law: “People are of two kinds, they are either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity.”
"We are so happy to have the Pope among us in our city Najaf," Taha Subhi Matar, one of the local organisers, told The National.
“We are not seeing this visit only for the Christians, but as a gain for all Iraq and the Marjiya [Shiite seminary] that has been a symbol of moderation and calling for peace,” Mr Matar said.
In Mosul, where ISIS persecuted Christians during their rule from 2014 to 2017 and where large areas are still in ruins, Muslim resident Nawaf Mohammed paid for the printing of Pope posters that he distributed in the city.
“I hope that our Christian brothers and sisters are encouraged to return to their areas after this visit,” said Mr Nawaf, 27.
"The presence of the Pope in Mosul will send a message to the world that the city's roots run deep and its residents love peace and coexistence among all religious sects," he said. Mr Nawaf said he hoped the visit would spur rebuilding in the city.
Pope Francis is visiting Iraq at a sensitive time.
ISIS cells are still able to launch attacks more than three years after the group was driven from the areas it once controlled, including a double suicide bombing in Baghdad in January.
Tensions are high after recent attacks on US bases by suspected renegade Shiite militias, while a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic pushed daily infections to more than 5,000 from about 600 in January.