Pope Visits Iraq Friday Despite Wide Rockets Attack on US Military Base

Published March 3rd, 2021 - 10:55 GMT
Iraq Prepares For Pope Francis
Francis also intendeds the visit to increase the Vatican's outreach to Islam, and on Saturday will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Baghdad. (AFP)
Pope Francis insisted trip is still going ahead despite attack on US forces today

Pope Francis has insisted that his historic trip to Iraq which is due to take place this week will go ahead despite an attack on US forces in the country today. 

The 84-year-old pontiff said he cannot disappoint people 'who have suffered so much' by calling off the visit, the first ever by a pope to Iraq, at the last minute.

Instead, he asked people to pray for him and the journey 'so that it may take place in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits'. 

Pope Francis is due to land in Iraq on Friday for a three-day visit designed to encourage the country's Christian faithful after years of often violent repression by Islamic extremists including ISIS.

During the trip, Francis will visit the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad which was the site of a massacre of Christians in 2010, a church in Qaraqosh that was left charred by ISIS attacks, and pray for the victims of war in Mosul. 

The trip is also designed to broaden the Vatican's outreach to Islam, and on Saturday will feature a meeting between Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Francis has said the journey will complete the dream of Pope John Paul II who had planned to visit in 1999, but never made the trip over fears for his security and concerns that then-ruler Saddam Hussein would use it as propaganda. 

'The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much,' Francis said in his weekly Wednesday address. 

He added: 'The Iraqi people are waiting for us, they were waiting for Saint John Paul II, who was forbidden to go. 

'One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful.'

At least 10 rockets slammed into a military base in western Iraq hosting US-led coalition troops earlier on Wednesday, security sources said, leaving one civilian contractor dead.

The attack on the sprawling Ain al-Assad base in Iraq's western desert comes after several weeks of escalating US-Iran tensions on Iraqi soil.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Francis said the pope would be travelling by armoured vehicle and that he would not be meeting crowds.

'This is a particular situation, that's why the transports will all be in a closed vehicle, meaning it will be complicated to see the pope on the streets,' spokesman Matteo Brunei said.

'There will be a number of meetings but none will be more than a few hundred people,' he said.

A civilian contractor has died during a rocket strike against a US airbase in Iraq just days after President Joe Biden's first airstrike against Iranian-backed militants reportedly killed 22 people.  

At least 10 rockets hit the Ain al-Asad air base, in Iraq's western Anbar province, at around 7.20am local time from a launcher located five miles from the base, Iraqi and Western military sources said.

It is not yet clear who carried out the strikes but it comes days after US President Joe Biden approved his first airstrike - an attack on two Iranian-backed Shia militia groups in Syria that left 22 dead.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been escalating in recent years, particularly during former president Donald Trump's four years in the White House, exacerbated by the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani last year, on Trump's orders.

Iraqi and Western security sources said that the contractor died of a heart attack. No other casualties have been reported.

The attack on the sprawling base is the fourth time in less than three weeks that rockets hit a Western installation in the country. 

Dozens of rocket attacks and roadside bombs targeted Western security, military and diplomatic sites in Iraq in 2020, with Iraqi and Western military sources blaming hardline pro-Iran factions.

They came to a near-complete halt in October following a truce with the hardliners, but they have resumed at a quickening pace over the past three weeks.

In mid-February, rockets targeted US-led coalition troops in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil, a US military contracting company working north of the capital and the US embassy in Baghdad.

The US responded on February 26 with an air strike on Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary force stationed along the Iraqi-Syrian border. 

Twenty-two people were killed when seven 500lbs bombs were dropped on a compound used by two Iranian-backed Shia militia groups in the first Biden-authorized airstrike on the Shia militia compound in Syria. 

Military sources said the airstrike was intended to 'draw a line' after a series of attacks on US positions.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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