ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — French President Emmanuel Macron on Aug. 30 visited the former "capital" of the Islamic State (IS), Mosul, a day after taking part in the Baghdad Conference, involving several high-level leaders from the region, in the Iraqi capital.
He had flown to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on the night of Aug. 29, where he met with Yazidi Nobel Peace Prize laureate and IS torture survivor Nadia Murad as well as senior Kurdish officials.
During the visit Aug. 30, Macron met with President of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani, the latter stressed the significance of the French president's trip to Iraq in supporting the democratic process.
Iraq is holding early elections Oct. 10.
The two leaders discussed the bilateral relationship between Iraq and France and the latter's role in fighting terrorism in Iraq.
On his visit to Mosul, Macron made a speech at the Church of Our Lady of the Hour, which is currently under restoration. He also visited the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a 'caliphate' in June 2014.
Iraq is a Muslim-majority country with a population of around 40 million. Non-Muslims account for about 5% of the population.
In Mosul, Macron pledged to bring back a French Consulate to the city, which was officially declared taken back from IS after a monthslong bloody battle in July 2017.
He criticized the pace of reconstruction in the city, many parts of which are still devastated, as too slow.
Mosul is also where French special forces reportedly in 2017 provided the names and photographs of up to 30 French nationals who had joined the transnational terror group and identified as high-value targets to Iraqi counterterrorism troops during the battle for the city, as well as location coordinates and other intelligence to ensure that these men would not return to France alive.
Among those taking part in the Baghdad Conference were Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also took part in the conference, in his first international trip as foreign minister. Before attending the conference, he paid homage at the memorial where Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike on Jan. 3, 2020.
The conference aimed to reduce tensions in the region and support stability in Iraq.
Macron had notably stressed during the conference that no matter whether the United States pulled out of Iraq or not, France would remain.
"Fighting against terrorism, supporting structured regional projects and responding to challenges in the Middle East can only be done together," Macron wrote on Twitter.
As part of its military support to Iraq, France provides air support and 800 soldiers currently as part of the US-led international coalition against IS.
Greater attention has been given in recent days to the potential for IS branches around the world to conduct attacks after Islamic State Khorasan, the local group of IS in Afghanistan referred to as ISKP, claimed responsibility for the attack Aug. 26 outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul that killed over 170 people, including 13 US soldiers.
This journalist reported in early August from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, detailing risks that a Taliban takeover in the country would entail international terrorism. The Taliban quickly took over several provinces as US troops withdrew in recent months and officially took control of the Afghan capital on Aug. 15.
Last month, the United States said that combat operations involving its forces in Iraq would end this year but that US soldiers would continue to advise, train and support the country’s armed forces.
Many noted at the time that the United States had already previously said repeatedly that its forces were no longer involved in combat in the country.
The United States is believed to have about 2,500 troops deployed in the country, mainly at the Ain al-Asad base in the western, Sunni-majority province of Anbar, in Baghdad and in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
In March 2020, two US servicemen were killed during a battle against IS militants in the Qarachogh mountains. An operation lasting several hours were required to extract their corpses. They had been killed while advising and accompanying Iraqi security forces on the mission, according to US officials.
The Qarachoch mountains are in part of the country disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
On the KRG side are troops under Sector 6 Peshmerga commander Maj. Gen. Sirwan Barzani, who this journalist has interviewed several times in recent years, including while reporting from the Qarachogh mountains in April 2019 amid a rash of fires allegedly set by IS and in September 2020.
As is the case with other disputed areas — such as the rough Hamrin mountains south of the Qarachogh mountains and cutting across the country from the eastern Salahuddin province to the border with Iran — there are gaps in security that repeated attempts to bridge differences between the KRG and Baghdad have improved but not yet solved.
Meanwhile, France has been repeatedly criticized for not repatriating its citizens in camps for those linked to IS fighters across the border in northeastern Syria, in territory under the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
It was reported in March that some 300 children of French nationality were still stuck in the squalid, unsafe camps in northeastern Syria, two-thirds of whom under age six.
France has suffered several attacks by IS adherents, such as what is known as the Bataclan attack in November 2015, which left 130 dead and over 400 injured.
Two of the attackers responsible for this attack were of Iraqi origin but French nationals.
Iraqi intelligence officials claimed in the wake of the attack that they had provided information about the impending attack to the French authorities, but that they had never heard back from them.
France appears interested in playing a role in Iraq to fill any vacuum a US withdrawal might leave. Macron had previously visited the Iraqi capital in September 2020 in what was the first by a senior foreign official to Baghdad since Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn in as Iraqi prime minister in May 2020, after months of a government void. The previous government had stepped down in December 2019 amid massive protests. Kadhimi has visited France twice during his time as prime minister.