[Produced with my colleague Salam Faraj and published here March 8, 2021]
Pope Francis’ historic trip to war-scarred Iraq went off without a hitch — an image boost Baghdad hopes will help revive international engagement, foreign investment and even tourism.
But while the government hailed the pontiff’s successful visit as a “turning point”, country experts cautioned that the threats of violence and political turmoil have not vanished overnight.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s four-day visit was a bold trip by any measure: Iraq has long been a byword for conflict.
Recent years have seen major battles to oust the Islamic State group, rockets attacks against the US-led coalition, and deadly street clashes between protesters and security forces.
The pope’s visit stood in welcome contrast as Francis criss-crossed the country and spread his message of peace to jubilant crowds.
Baghdad believes it marked a turning point that will change Iraq’s image as a dangerous destination, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahhaf told AFP, as the pope’s plane left for Rome.
“If Iraq was not stable and secure, would someone of the stature of the pope have been able to travel all around?” he said. “The whole world was following the success of this trip.”
A senior security official told AFP that intelligence agencies had worked day and night as Francis toured sites including the northern city of Mosul, a former IS bastion still largely in ruins, and nearby plains where paramilitaries remain powerful.
“The fact that there was no security issue, not even a tiny one,” the official said, “proves Iraq is done with terrorism and can protect foreign delegations who will come more easily in the future.”
– ‘Historic opportunity’ –
US President Joe Biden said that to see Francis visit ancient religious sites, meet Muslim leaders “and offer prayers in Mosul — a city that only a few years ago endured the depravity and intolerance of a group like ISIS — is a symbol of hope for the entire world”.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi announced that March 6 — the day Francis visited top Muslim Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the shrine city of Najaf — would from now be marked as a national day of coexistence.
On Monday, Kadhemi said in a televised address that Iraq now had a “historic opportunity” to improve ties among its diverse ethno-religious communities and political parties.
Indeed, the pope’s high-profile visit would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.
In late 2017, Iraqi forces were fighting to defeat the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, which had stretched from Syria across much of the country’s north for three years after a decade of sectarian violence.
In 2019, street rallies erupted against corruption, unemployment and poor public services, with at least 600 people killed since in protest-related violence.
Their demands were not met, and deadly demonstrations again shook Baghdad days before the pope’s visit, just a short drive from where he held an interfaith service.
“Iraq faces many challenges and the visit perhaps made us forget about them for few days,” Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, told AFP.
“But they remain in place and are lurking menacingly.”
One way Iraq could “capitalise” on the trip, Alaaldin said, would be to revamp the roads and tourism sites visited by the pope, including the ancient site of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham is said to have been born.
Ur is just one of dozens of historic sites across Iraq, known as a “cradle of civilisation”, that showcase millenia of Mesopotamian, Christian and Islamic heritage, but investment in them has been slim amid the years of turmoil.
– ‘More sad news’ –
Authorities also need to take a hard look at the dismal conditions in which most of Iraq’s 40 million people live, said political analyst Osama Saidi.
The poverty rate has doubled to 40 percent in the past year due to a collapse in oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 13,000 Iraqi lives.
Most people still only get a few hours of state-provided electricity per day and, apart from roads freshly paved for the pope’s convoy, most streets flood in the winter.
“After this trip, all the infrastructure needs to be re-assessed and everything must be done to make this country livable,” Saidi told AFP. “Officials need to step up.”
Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at US think-tank the Century Foundation, told AFP that Francis’ visit was “brave”, but that it highlighted the failures of authorities instead of their successes.
“The pope was sitting in front of the ruins of a church more than three years after Mosul was liberated — it doesn’t reflect well on the Iraqi government,” he said.
With political tensions high as parliamentary elections draw closer, some fear the feel-good Francis vibes may dissipate quickly.
“Unfortunately, at this moment it looks like there are going to be more sad news stories ahead rather than good news stories,” said Jiyad.