MOSUL, (Iraq): French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday visited the Islamic State jihadist 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 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".
The mainly Sunni Muslim city was recaptured from IS in 2017 after three years. Only 30-40 percent of its health facilities have so far been restored, according to a local official.
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.
"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.
His visit to Mosul, a melting pot of Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious communities, symbolised France's support for Christians in the Middle East.
Before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a sizeable minority of 1.5 million Christians, but it has 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.
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," the French president said ahead of his visit.