French President Emmanuel Macron is set to make his first official visit to Iraq Wednesday, where he hopes to help Baghdad reassert its "sovereignty" despite simmering US-Iran tensions.
Coming straight from a two-day trip to Beirut, the capital of crisis-hit Lebanon, Macron will be the most significant leader to visit Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi came to power in May.
The trip was not publicly announced until Tuesday evening, with officials in Paris and Baghdad keeping a tight lid on arrangements for security reasons.
On his final night in Beirut, Macron announced he was heading to Baghdad "to launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty".
"The fight for Iraq's sovereignty is essential," Macron had told reporters Friday, before departing for Lebanon.
He said Iraqis, who "suffered so much", deserved options besides domination by regional powers or Islamist extremism.
"There are leaders and a people who are aware of this, and who want to take their destiny in hand. The role of France is to help them do so," Macron said.
After a US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was ravaged by waves of sectarian conflict that culminated in the Daesh group capturing swathes of the country six years ago, before the militants were beaten back with international support.
At the same time, the country has been caught for years between its two main allies Iran and the US, a balancing act that has become increasingly tortured since Washington's withdrawal in 2018 from a multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran.
France is among European nations that remain key backers of the 2015 agreement.
- 'Great importance' -
This year alone, a US drone strike killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, prompting Iran to launch missiles against US troops in Iraq.
Tehran-backed groups are suspected of launching volleys of rockets on US diplomatic, military and commercial interests in Iraq in recent months.
As oil cartel OPEC's second biggest producer, Iraq has also been hit hard by the world price collapse and the coronavirus pandemic forced its fragile economy to sink even further.
France has signaled its support.
Top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Iraq in July, insisting Baghdad "should dissociate itself from regional tensions".
On August 27, French Defense minister Florence Parly stressed the need for continued support to Iraqi forces in her talks with senior military and political leaders.
On Wednesday, Macron is set to meet both Kadhemi and President Barham Saleh, whom he met in Paris in 2019, and a host of other political figures.
The visit would be of "great importance, as it's the third by French officials in a single month," said Husham Dawood, an adviser to the Iraqi premier.
Unlike most foreign officials, the French president will not stop over in Arbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Instead, Kurdish president Nechirvan Barzani is set travel to Baghdad for talks.
Soon after winning the presidency in 2017, Macron had tried to mediate between the autonomous Kurdish north and the federal government, but financial and security disputes between the two sides remain unresolved.
There would likely be no announcements of new financial or military aid, Iraqi officials said.
France did not take part in the invasion that toppled Saddam, but it did join the US-led coalition launched in 2014 to fight Daesh.
- Message to Ankara? -
Earlier this year, following Daesh's territorial defeat and the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the last contingent of French troops deployed in Iraq as part of the coalition pulled out.
France is struggling to expand its economic ties with Iraq, ranked among the 20 most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International.
Macron's "sovereignty initiative" was also an indirect message to Turkey, one Iraqi official said.
Ankara launched a cross-border air and ground assault on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in June, infuriating Baghdad, which slammed it as a violation of Iraqi territory.
Tensions are already high between France and Turkey over the conflict in Libya, where both Paris and Ankara have accused the other of meddling, 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.
He chaired a donor conference on Lebanon last month and said he would be ready to hold another one alongside political meetings in October.