French Islamic State group fighters to be tried in Iraq

Ludovic Marin, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Iraqi President Barham Saleh to the Élysée Palace in Paris on February 25.

Iraqi courts will prosecute 13 French citizens captured while fighting for the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria, Iraq's President Barham Saleh said Monday.


The fighters, who were turned over to Iraq after being seized by Syrian Kurdish forces, "will be judged according to Iraqi law," Saleh told a news conference after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

"Those who have engaged in crimes against Iraq and Iraqi installations and personnel, we are definitely seeking them and seeking their trial in Iraqi courts," he said.

An Iraqi government source in Baghdad had told AFP earlier Monday that 14 French fighters had been brought to Iraq by the US-backed forces trying to dislodge IS jihadists from their last bastion in Syria.

Western countries are facing growing pressure to take back citizens captured as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces close in on the last pocket of IS fighters in Syria.

With the US decision to withdraw its troops from the country, they fear the fighters could escape Kurdish jails and resume fighting -- or return home with plans to stage attacks.

France has long maintained that any of its nationals caught in Syria or Iraq should be tried locally, a stance which critics say could leave them facing the death penalty, which is outlawed in France.

Iraqi courts have already meted out hefty sentences to hundreds of foreigners detained on its soil, often after lightning-quick trials.

But Macron reiterated France's position Monday, saying that "it is up to the authorities of these countries to decide, sovereignly, if they will be tried there."

"These people are entitled to benefit from our consular protection, and our diplomatic service will be mobilised," he added.

'Good news'

Macron also said he would visit Iraq in the coming months, after France announced in January that it would provide one billion euros ($1.1 billion) in reconstruction funds for the war-ravaged country.

"Iraq needs to recover its leading role in the region," Macron said, while urging its government to ensure an inclusive political system to avoid the sectarian violence that has beset the country for years.

The French president also welcomed last week's announcement by US President Donald Trump that around 200 American soldiers will remain in northwest Syria, after previously saying all US forces would be pulled from the country.

"The American decision is good news... It corresponds with the need to remain alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces," Macron said.

"We will back up this decision politically... and we will continue to work in the region as part of the coalition" that has retaken nearly all the territory once held by IS as its so-called "caliphate", Macron said, without elaborating.

France has appeared to soften its stance on its foreign fighters in Syria after Trump's decision to withdraw 2,000 troops from Syria, in particular with regard to women and children.

Government sources in recent weeks have said around 50 adults and 80 children could be brought back to France, although authorities have not confirmed any planned transfer.

Trump himself has called on European nations to repatriate the more than 800 fighters from France, Britain, Germany and elsewhere captured in the fight against IS, as have Kurdish leaders.

But the decision is a delicate one for French officials wary of seeing former fighters staging attacks at home once they have purged any prison terms, following a wave of deadly jihadist terror attacks since 2015.

'Mission not accomplished'

Saleh warned later Monday that jihadist terrorism threats remained high despite the gains against IS over the past year.

"We've seen in the past that the mission is yet to be accomplished," Saleh said in a speech at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) think-tank -- evoking the infamous 2003 Iraq claim by former US president George W. Bush.

"You have many, many extremists in many pockets in Syria, causing a potent threat to Syria, Iraq and the Western world," he said.

Saleh said more efforts were needed to tackle the "root causes" of the Islamic State's emergence, including economic development and more democratic participation by minorities in Iraqi politics.

"We need to embark on major political initiatives to make sure communities are included in the system," he said.


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