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France's Macron vows troops will stay in Iraq as he pays visit to Mosul

Afghanistan high on the agenda during the French president's visit as he pushed for a safe zone in Kabul
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to journalists during a tour of the Our Lady of the Hour Church in Iraq's second city of Mosul in northern Nineveh province, on 29 August 2021 (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron visited the Islamic State (IS) group's former Iraqi stronghold Mosul on Sunday, a day after vowing to keep French troops in the country.

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 Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan as the US withdraws its forces from the country after 20 years.

"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.

While his visit in Iraq focused notably on minorities in the country, the French leader pushed on Sunday for international efforts in Afghanistan.

Churches, mosques and shrines

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".

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The city, a melting pot of Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious communities, was recaptured in 2017 after three years under IS control.

Only 30-40 percent of its health facilities have so far been restored, according to a local official. 

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.

Before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted president Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a sizable minority of 1.5 million Christians, but that has been 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.

"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.

'Reviving the Spirit of Mosul'

Macron also made a stop at the site of Mosul's al-Nuri mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had 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 group in Mosul's Old City.

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Unesco is now organising a vast project to rebuild it almost identically, including 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 extent of $50m.

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.

Macron on Friday also visited the Shia 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.

Macron also met young Iraqis, including entrepreneurs and students, at the University of Mosul.

Later on Sunday, he was to visit Erbil, 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, Massoud Barzani.

The Iraqi Kurdish president tweeted: "I look forward to discussing 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."

Macron will meet the family of a Peshmerga fighter killed by IS, to pay tribute to the Kurdish contribution to the fight against the militant group.

Kabul safe zone proposal

Meanwhile, Macron announced that France and the United Kingdom would submit a resolution to an emergency United Nations meeting due on Monday proposing a safe zone in Kabul to try to protect people trying to leave Afghanistan.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is convening a meeting on Afghanistan with the UN envoys for Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia - the Security Council's permanent, veto-wielding members.

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Speaking from Mosul, Macron said he was hopeful the resolution would be welcomed favourably.

"I cannot see who could oppose enabling the safety of humanitarian operations," Macron told reporters.

"Our resolution proposal aims to define a safe zone in Kabul, under UN control, which would allow humanitarian operations to continue," Macron told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) in an interview published on Sunday.

"This would provide a framework for the United Nations to act in an emergency."

US troops have been scrambling in dangerous and chaotic conditions to complete a massive evacuation operation from the Kabul airport by a 31 August deadline.

France ended its evacuation efforts on 27 August and the UK followed suit on the next day.

Macron announced on Saturday that discussions had been "started with the Taliban" to "protect and repatriate" Afghan nationals at risk beyond 31 August.

The French president added that, with help from Qatar, which maintains good relations with the Taliban, there was a possibility of further airlift operations.

He said that France had evacuated 2,834 people from Afghanistan since 17 August.

In the article published by JDD, Macron also took aim at some discussions in France which "stir fears" about the arrival of Afghan refugees in France.

"My role is not to stir up fears among our compatriots, it is to provide solutions to resolve them," he said, giving assurances that he aims to manage migratory pressures with "humanity, firmness, with an ability to protect our borders as necessary".