The battle to recapture the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last major Daesh stronghold in the country, is likely to take weeks, the French President Francois Hollande said on a visit to Baghdad on Monday.
He vowed to continue supporting Iraq in its fight against Daesh militant group and to help in the reconstruction efforts of damaged cities.
“France will actively participate in the reconstruction efforts in Mosul after defeating the Daesh there”, Hollande said during a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
“Everything that contributes to reconstructing Iraq is an additional step to avoiding Daesh strikes on our own territory,” he added.
The French President arrived in Baghdad today to meet French troops and top officials, and will “stress the importance of continuing efforts to ensure sustainable security in the country after ISIS [Daesh] has been defeated”, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
He was due to meet Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, of Iraq’s main Shiite political group, President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, and Parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, a prominent Sunni politician.
“My visit to Iraq is to convey support and solidarity from France to the operation of liberating Mosul”, he said.
The French leader stressed, in a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, that supporting military operations against the Daesh group is key to preventing terror attacks at home.
“Taking action against terrorism, here in Iraq, is also preventing acts of terrorism on our own soil”, he said at a base where French soldiers have been training elite Iraqi forces.
Hollande, the only major Western head of state to have visited Baghdad since the coalition was set up in 2014, has also stressed that supporting Iraq was one of the surest ways of securing Europe. “What will happen in Iraq and Syria will affect the security situation in France and Europe”, he stressed.
On French jihadi citizens, Hollande said that France will fight any French jihadist it locates in the battlefields of Iraq, pledging to arrest them if they return home and to work on de-radicalizing their children.
There are about 60 French citizens fighting alongside Daesh militants in the northern city of Mosul alone and hundreds more in the rest of the country and Syria, French diplomatic sources said.
“We will fight them like (we fight) all jihadists … since they are attacking us, since they prepare attacks on our own territory,” Hollande told AFP
Besides the defeated jihadists expected to return to Europe, radicalised children who grew up in the “caliphate” Daesh proclaimed in 2014 are also seen as ticking bombs.
“We will have to deal with the issue of the return of foreign fighters… who committed crimes, who brought their families with them, including in some cases very young children,” Hollande said.
During the visit, Hollande also predicted Monday that 2017 would be “a year of victories against terrorism”.
The French president’s visit came amid a suicide car bombing claimed by Daesh killed at least 32 people and wounded more than 60 Monday in Baghdad’s Shiite-majority district of Sadr City.
Hollande, who is traveling with Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, had visited Iraq in 2014 and remains the most prominent head of state to visit the country since the launch, two and half years ago, of a US-led coalition against the jihadists.
France is the second contributor to the US-led coalition that has carried out thousands of airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and provided military equipment, training and advice to Iraqi forces.
Since it joined the United States in the coalition in September 2014, French military sources revealed that its warplanes have conducted 5,700 sorties, around 1,000 strikes and destroyed more than 1,700 targets, according to UK’s Daily Mail.
It also has 500 soldiers training and advising elite Iraqi forces and CAESAR artillery vehicles stationed south of Mosul to support ongoing operations to retake the city, Daily Mail reported.
Following the attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris in 2015, the French government decided to increase its defence budget by €600m (£506m) in 2016 and €700m this year, according to AFP.
Last week, All-Abadi claimed it would take “three months to eliminate” Daesh from Iraq.
Backed by US forces, the Iraqi military has been battling to dislodge the militant group from Mosul, the largest city held by Isis in either Iraq or Syria and the de-facto capital of its self-styled Islamic caliphate.
But more than two months into the operation, only a quarter of the city has been taken. Commanders have blamed the slower pace on the need to protect civilians who have mostly stayed in their homes rather than fleeing as was expected.