MOSUL, IRAQ (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday (Aug 29) visited the Islamic State terror 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 United Nations' cultural agency Unesco is working to restore, Mr 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 the Islamic State fought its last urban battle, as too slow.
The mainly Sunni Muslim city was recaptured from the Islamic State in 2017 after three years.
Mr Macron made the commitment for France to stay put in Iraq during a regional summit in Baghdad largely devoted to the fight against terrorism and the impact of the Taleban's takeover of Afghanistan as the United States 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.
Mr Macron's visit to Mosul, a melting pot of Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious communities, symbolised France's support for Christians in the Middle East.
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," Mr Macron said ahead of his visit.
He also made a stop at the site of Mosul's Al-Nuri mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the establishment of a "caliphate" in 2014.
The terror network blew up the famed 12th century mosque in 2017 as Iraqi forces closed in on the extremists in Mosul's Old City. Unesco is now organising a 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 US$50 million (S$67 million).
The initiative, called "Reviving the Spirit of Mosul" and the largest in the organisation's history, includes plans to rebuild Ottoman-style heritage houses as part of a European-funded project.
Mr Macron last Friday visited the Shiite Muslim shrine of Imam Musa Al-Kadhim in the northern Baghdad district of Kadhimiya, accompanied by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
It was the first such visit for a French president.
Mr Macron's visit also included Arbil, capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
After meeting French special forces at Camp Grenier, he will hold talks with Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani, as well as 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 wrote on Twitter.