BAGHDAD • Supporting military operations against ISIS is key to preventing terror attacks at home, French President Francois Hollande said yesterday during a one-day visit to Iraq.
Mr Hollande, who had already visited the country in 2014, remains the most prominent head of state to come to Iraq since the launch 21/2 years ago of a US-led coalition against the militants.
The French President, who was accompanied by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, was to stop also in the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan during his visit.
"Taking action against terrorism here in Iraq is also preventing acts of terrorism on our own soil," Mr Hollande said at a base of Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service near Baghdad.
France is a key contributor to the US-led coalition that has carried out thousands of air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants as well as provided military equipment, training and advice to Iraqi forces.
Iraqi forces completely collapsed when ISIS militants took over the second city of Mosul in June 2014 and swept across much of the country's Sunni Arab heartland.
The militants gained more territory in August 2014, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee from areas that had been controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Since it joined the United States in the coalition in September that year, French aircraft have conducted 5,700 sorties, around 1,000 strikes and destroyed more than 1,700 targets, according to Defence Ministry figures.
France has 14 Rafale fighter jets, stationed in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, that are taking part in coalition operations.
It also has 500 soldiers training and advising elite Iraqi forces and Caesar artillery vehicles stationed south of Mosul to provide support for operations to retake the city.
Australia, Italy and Britain are also part of the 60-member coalition supporting the anti-ISIS efforts.
French nationals are among the largest contingents of foreign fighters in ISIS and security agencies fear the disintegration of the "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria will result in an influx of returning militants bent on carrying out terror attacks in their home countries.
Mr Hollande was also expected to voice support yesterday for reconciliation and unity in Iraq, where observers fear an end to major operations against ISIS could see old internal divisions resurface.
"He will stress the importance of continuing efforts to ensure sustainable security in the country after (ISIS) has been defeated and the coexistence of communities in a united and sovereign Iraq," said a source in the French presidency.
Mr Hollande was scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who hails from the main Shi'ite political bloc; President Fuad Masum, a Kurd; and Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Juburi, one of the country's most prominent Sunni politicians.
The French leader began his trip with a visit to a base near Baghdad where his country's forces are training Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service, the force that has spearheaded most major anti-ISIS operations in Iraq since 2014.
It was the elite force that first breached the city limits of Mosul late last year in an effort to retake what is now ISIS' last major stronghold in Iraq. But the going has been tough for Iraqi forces, partly because hundreds of thousands of civilians have remained in the city, slowing their advance.
Mr Abadi had promised that his forces would rid Iraq of ISIS by the end of 2016 but he said last week that three more months would be needed to achieve that goal.
That remained an ambitious timeline, some observers have argued, given the continued presence of ISIS fighters in other parts of the country, such as in Hawijah or in the province of Anbar near the Syrian border.