Macron backs Iraq 'sovereignty' on first Baghdad visit
French President Emmanuel Macron and Iraq's President Barham Saleh inspect an honour guard upon the former's reception in the Baghdad. AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron met his Iraqi counterpart Wednesday on his first official visit to Baghdad, where he insisted the war-scarred country should reassert its "sovereignty" despite simmering US-Iran tensions.
Coming straight from a two-day trip to crisis-hit Lebanon, Macron is the most prominent world leader to visit Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi came to power in May.
The trip aims to "launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty," Macron announced on his final night in Beirut. In Baghdad, he voiced his support for his Iraqi counterpart Barham Saleh to help Iraq fight Islamic State group sleeper cells and resist foreign interference.
"Iraq has been going through a challenging time for several years, with war and terrorism," Macron said. "You have a transition to lead. France will be by your side so the international community can help," he added.
But there were few details on the much-vaunted "sovereignty" initiative, and Iraqi officials told AFP they were not expecting announcements of new financial or military aid.
Saleh thanked Macron for France's support in the anti-IS fight and said he hoped Macron would pay a longer visit to Iraq in 2021. After dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by a 2003 US-led invasion -- in which France did not take part -- Iraq was ravaged by waves of sectarian conflict.
That culminated in IS capturing swathes of the country six years ago, before the jihadists were beaten back with international support including a US-led coalition that did include French forces.
Iraq 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, one of the key remaining backers of the 2015 agreement, called for de-escalation after a US strike on Baghdad in January killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and prompted Iran to launch missiles against US troops in Iraq.
France has doubled down on its signs of support in recent tumultuous months. Top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was the only minister to accompany Macron from Lebanon, visited Iraq in July and urged Baghdad to "dissociate itself from regional tensions".
Macron last week insisted that "the fight for Iraq's sovereignty is essential." He said Iraqis, who had "suffered so much", deserved options besides domination by regional powers or Islamist extremists.
Unlike most foreign officials, the French president will not stop over in Arbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, but will instead meet Kurdish president Nechirvan Barzani in Baghdad.
'France-facing Middle East'
Earlier this year, following IS's territorial defeat and the emergence of Covid-19, the last contingent of French troops deployed in Iraq as part of the coalition pulled out. France is seeking to expand its economic ties with Iraq, ranked among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International.
Macron is also likely to discuss the fate of 11 French nationals who were condemned to death last year by Iraqi courts for joining IS. The president's focus on sovereignty was also an indirect message to Turkey, one Iraqi official said, after Ankara launched a cross-border assault on Kurdish rebels in the north.
Tensions are high between France and Turkey over the conflict in Libya and a dispute over offshore gas rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Macron's lightning visit follows intense talks in Lebanon -- his second since a colossal August 4 explosion at Beirut port killed more than 180 people.
Karim Bitar, a political science professor in France and Lebanon, said the French leader was focusing on Lebanon and Iraq -- which have ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia -- as he believes Paris could play a mediating role if regional tensions escalate further. "Macron is definitely trying to make a push for a France-facing Middle East," Bitar said.