French President Francois Hollande expressed his solidarity with Iraq on a visit to Baghdad on Friday, as his country prepares for possible airstrikes with a U.S.-led coalition against extremists who have seized territory around the region, AP reported.
Hollande's trip and a conference that Paris is hosting Monday on Iraq are the first steps in a long-term effort to bolster the new Iraqi government and weaken militants from the Islamic State group.
It's also Hollande's first visit to the country since the Islamic State fighters overrun large swaths of northern and western Iraq, along with the territory the militant group had already seized in Syria.
Hollande is expected to discuss possible French airstrikes with Iraqi authorities during his visit. France is likely to start strikes very soon in coordination with the United States - if the Iraqi government requests such action - but won't send ground troops, a senior French official said Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity according to government policy.
At a press conference with Iraq's President Fouad Massoum, Hollande said Friday that the Islamic State group is waging a war on "all people who do not share their vision or ideas."
The aim of the Paris conference "is to coordinate the aid, the support (and) the actions to work for the unity of Iraq and against this terrorist group," Hollande added.
He was also expected to meet with Iraq's new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who named a new Cabinet this week, expect for a few positions - including the critical posts of defense and interior minister, which al-Abadi said would be announced next week.
Hollande has been one of the most militarily aggressive leaders in modern French history, sending troops to Mali and Central African Republic. France was the first European government to start arming Kurdish authorities against Islamic State militants last month.
This is in part because France fears violence on its own soil. Authorities are struggling to stop the flow of hundreds of French radicals who have joined extremists in Syria and Iraq and who could return to Europe to stage attacks. A Frenchman who went to Syria and held American journalists hostage is the chief suspect in a May attack on a Brussels Jewish museum that left four dead.
"These people have only one idea: to rape, crucify, assassinate. We must all mobilize to make them retreat, neutralize them and get rid of them," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week of the Islamic State militants.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2006 civil war when the Islamic State group captured large swaths of land straddling the Syria-Iraq border with the goal of establishing a self-styled caliphate. The U.S. launched airstrikes and humanitarian aid missions on Aug. 8 to boost the efforts of waning Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.
The airstrikes marked a significant shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq, where the military fully withdrew in late 2011, after nearly a decade of war.
The French government - which vigorously opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a decade ago - insists any action be at the request of the Iraqi government. France does not want to be a pawn or lapdog in a U.S.-run war, but will play a "significant" role in the coalition and make its own decisions on what to contribute, the French official also said on Thursday.
Unlike the U.S., France is stopping short of possible action in Syria, at least for now. The French fear that airstrikes on extremists in Syria could strengthen President Bashar Assad's hand and raise international legal problems.