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French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday visited the Islamic State jihadist group’s former Iraqi stronghold Mosul, a day after vowing to keep troops in the country.
In a speech at the devastated city’s Church of Our Lady of the Hour, which the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO is working to restore, Macron urged Iraq’s religious communities to “work together” to rebuild the country.
“We will bring back a (French) consulate and schools,” he pledged, while criticising the pace of reconstruction in Mosul, where IS fought its last urban battle, as “too slow”.
The mainly Sunni Muslim city was recaptured from IS in 2017 after three years. Only 30-40 percent of its health facilities have so far been restored, according to a local official.
Macron made the commitment for France to stay in Iraq during a regional summit in Baghdad largely devoted to the fight against terrorism and the impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as the US withdraws.
“No matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight against terrorism,” he told a news conference on Saturday.
On Sunday he said France and Britain will urge the United Nations on Monday to work for the creation of a “safe zone” in Kabul to protect humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.
“This project is completely feasible,” he said.
His visit to Mosul, a melting pot of Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious communities, symbolised France’s support for Christians in the Middle East.
Before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a sizeable minority of 1.5 million Christians, but it has whittled down to 400,000 out of a total population of some 40 million after waves of emigration in the face of conflict and persecution.
France, which finances French-speaking Christian schools in the region, aims to highlight the plight of Christians in the Middle East, as well as other minorities.
"This message is civilisational but also geopolitical. There will be no balance in Iraq if there is no respect for these communities," the French president said ahead of his visit.
Macron also went to the site of Mosul’s Al-Nuri mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a "caliphate" in 2014.
IS blew up the famed 12th century mosque in June 2017 as Iraqi forces closed in on the jihadists in Mosul’s Old City.
UNESCO is now organising a vast project to rebuild it almost identically, with its famed leaning minaret.
The mosque and church are part of three reconstruction projects led by UNESCO and funded by the United Arab Emirates to the tune of $50 million.
The initiative, called "Reviving the Spirit of Mosul", the largest in the organisation’s history, includes plans to rebuild Ottoman-style heritage houses as part of a European-funded project.
Talks with Barzani
In Baghdad on Saturday, Macron visited the Shiite Muslim shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim in the northern district of Kadhimiya, accompanied by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.
It was the first such visit for a French president, he said.
On Sunday, Macron was also meeting young Iraqis, including entrepreneurs and students, at the University of Mosul.
Later on the second and final day in Iraq, he will visit Arbil, capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
After meeting French special forces at Camp Grenier, he is scheduled to hold talks with Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani and his predecessor, Massud Barzani.
"I look forward to discuss bilateral ties, Iraqi elections and other pressing issues with President Macron. I remain grateful for France’s continued support to the Kurdistan Region and Iraq," the Iraqi Kurdish president tweeted.
Macron will also meet the family of a Peshmerga fighter killed by IS, to pay tribute to the Kurdish contribution to the fight against the jihadists.