French President Emmanuel Macron met Iraqi leaders Wednesday on his first visit to Baghdad where he stressed the war-scarred country must assert its "sovereignty" despite being caught up in US-Iran tensions.
Coming straight from a two-day trip to crisis-hit Lebanon, Macron is the most prominent world leader to visit Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi came to power in May.
The trip aims to "launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty," Macron said on the eve of his Iraq visit.
In Baghdad, he voiced his support for his Iraqi counterpart Barham Saleh to help fight Islamic State group sleeper cells and resist foreign interference.
"Iraq has been going through a challenging time for several years, with war and terrorism" as well as "multiple foreign interventions," Macron said.
"You have a transition to lead. France will be by your side so the international community can help."
But there were few details on the much-vaunted "sovereignty" initiative. Iraqi officials told AFP they were not expecting new financial or military aid.
President Saleh said he looked forward to a longer visit by Macron in 2021, and Kadhemi said he hoped France and Europe as a whole could help "restore stability" to the rocky region.
"We do not want to be an arena for confrontations but a zone of stability and moderation", the premier said, adding that France and Iraq would sign energy agreements in the future and deepen military cooperation.
Iraq was ravaged by waves of sectarian conflict after former dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in a 2003 US-led invasion, in which France did not take part.
The turmoil culminated in the Islamic State group capturing swathes of Iraq and Syria six years ago before the militants were beaten back with international support, including a US-led coalition which did include French forces.
Iraq has been caught for years between its two main allies Iran and the United States -- a balancing act that has become increasingly tortured since Washington's withdrawal in 2018 from a multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran.
France, one of the key remaining backers of the 2015 nuclear agreement, called for de-escalation after a US strike on Baghdad in January killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and prompted Iran to launch missiles against US troops in Iraq.
France has stressed its signs of support for Iraq in recent tumultuous months.
Top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was the only minister to accompany Macron from Lebanon to Iraq, had also visited Baghdad in July and urged the leadership there to "dissociate itself from regional tensions".
Macron last week insisted that "the fight for Iraq's sovereignty is essential".
He said Iraqis, who had "suffered so much", deserved options besides domination by regional powers or Islamist extremists.
Unlike most foreign visitors, the French president will not stop over in Arbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, but will instead meet Kurdish president Nechirvan Barzani in Baghdad.
French mediator role
Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the Islamic State group's territorial defeat and as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the last contingent of French troops deployed in Iraq as part of the coalition pulled out.
France is seeking to expand its economic ties with Iraq, despite the war-battered country's problems -- including being ranked among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world by watchdog group Transparency International.
Macron was also likely to discuss the fate of 11 French nationals who were condemned to death last year by Iraqi courts for joining IS.
The president's focus on sovereignty was also an indirect message to Turkey, one Iraqi official said, after Ankara launched a cross-border assault on Kurdish rebels in the north.
Tensions are high between France and Turkey over the conflict in Libya and a dispute over offshore gas rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Macron's lightning visit follows intense talks in Lebanon -- his second since a colossal August 4 explosion at Beirut port killed more than 180 people.
Karim Bitar, a political science professor in France and Lebanon, said the French leader was focusing on Lebanon and Iraq -- which have ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia -- as he believes Paris could play a mediating role if regional tensions escalate further.
"Macron is definitely trying to make a push for a France-facing Middle East," Bitar said.