French President Emmanuel Macron touched down in Baghdad on Wednesday for his first official visit to the capital, where he hopes to help Iraq reassert its "sovereignty" despite simmering US-Iran tensions.
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Coming straight from a two-day trip to Beirut, the capital of crisis-hit Lebanon, Macron will be the most significant leader to visit Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi came to power in May.
The trip was not publicly announced until Tuesday evening, with officials in Paris and Baghdad keeping a tight lid on arrangements for security reasons.
On his final night in Beirut, Macron announced he was heading to Baghdad "to launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty".
"The fight for Iraq's sovereignty is essential," Macron had told reporters on Friday, before departing for Lebanon.
He said Iraqis, who "suffered so much", deserved options besides domination by regional powers or Islamist extremism.
"There are leaders and a people who are aware of this, and who want to take their destiny in hand. The role of France is to help them do so," Macron said.
After a US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was ravaged by waves of sectarian conflict that culminated in the Islamic State group capturing swathes of the country six years ago, before the jihadists were beaten back with international support.
At the same time, the country has been caught for years between its two main allies Iran and the US, a balancing act that has become increasingly tortured since Washington's withdrawal in 2018 from a multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran.
France is among European nations that remain key backers of the 2015 agreement.
This year alone, a US drone strike killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, prompting Iran to launch missiles against US troops in Iraq.
Tehran-backed groups are suspected of launching volleys of rockets on US diplomatic, military and commercial interests in Iraq in recent months.
As oil cartel OPEC's second biggest producer, Iraq has also been hit hard by the world price collapse and the coronavirus pandemic forced its fragile economy to sink even further.
France has signalled its support.
Top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Iraq in July, insisting Baghdad "should dissociate itself from regional tensions".
On August 27, French Defence minister Florence Parly stressed the need for continued support to Iraqi forces in her talks with senior military and political leaders.
On Wednesday, Macron is set to meet both Kadhemi and President Barham Saleh, whom he met in Paris in 2019, and a host of other political figures.
The visit would be of "great importance, as it's the third by French officials in a single month," said Husham Dawood, an adviser to the Iraqi premier.
Unlike most foreign officials, the French president will not stop over in Arbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Instead, Kurdish president Nechirvan Barzani is set travel to Baghdad for talks.
Soon after winning the presidency in 2017, Macron had tried to mediate between the autonomous Kurdish north and the federal government, but financial and security disputes between the two sides remain unreRead More – Source