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Iraq ups security as unrest increases day before Pope's visit

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - FEBRUARY 28: Religious mass held at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church ahead of Pope Francis' visit on 5-8 March at Cathedral of Saint Joseph, also known as Cathedral of Mar Yousif in Baghdad, Iraq on February 28, 2021. ( Murtadha Al-Sudani - Anadolu Agency )
Religious mass held at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church ahead of Pope Francis' visit on 5-8 March at Cathedral of Saint Joseph, also known as Cathedral of Mar Yousif in Baghdad, Iraq on February 28, 2021. [Murtadha Al-Sudani - Anadolu Agency]

Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Pope Francis during his four-day visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader's safety, Reuters reported.

A senior security official who has been briefed on the security plan said that forces involved had been trained to deal with worst-case scenarios, from street battles to bombings and rocket attacks.

The hypothetical threats were part of large-scale exercises in preparation for the visit, the first ever by a pope to Iraq and which starts tomorrow and goes on until Monday. As well as concerns over violence, the country has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, further complicating preparations.

Francis said he was making the trip to show solidarity with the country's devastated Christian community of around 300,000, just one fifth of the number before the US invasion in 2003 and the brutal violence that followed.

READ: Five injured in Baghdad protest ahead of Pope visit to Iraq

Pope John Paul II came close to visiting, but had to cancel a planned trip in 2000 after talks with the government of then-leader Saddam Hussein broke down.

Over the past two months, attacks on civilians and military targets have increased. In January, Baghdad suffered its first major suicide bombing for three years when two people detonated themselves in a crowded market, killing at least 32.

Yesterday morning, ten rockets landed on an airbase that hosts US, coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours after that attack, the pope reaffirmed he would be going to Iraq.

The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.

Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of the Prophet Abraham who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

A member of the Iraqi forces stands next to a poster depicting an image of Pope Francis at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in the Karrada district of Iraq's capital Baghdad on March 1, 2021 amidst preparations ahead of the pontiff's visit [SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images]

A member of the Iraqi forces stands next to a poster depicting an image of Pope Francis at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in the Karrada district of Iraq's capital Baghdad on March 1, 2021 amidst preparations ahead of the pontiff's visit [SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images]

Interior ministry special forces and the army will set up a security cordon around the pope wherever he goes, while the air force will operate drones around the clock to monitor the routes he will take.

There will be an explosives team and counter-terrorism personnel on standby in case of any suspicious devices or street battles.

Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope, said the source, who declined to be named while discussing security matters.

A technical team can also jam or cut off suspicious phone calls or radio communications, he added.

READ: Vatican's Iraq envoy tests positive for COVID but says Pope's trip is on

Vatican officials and local church leaders say they are satisfied that Iraqi forces will be able to provide adequate protection for the pope and his entourage.

About 10,000 security personnel will be deployed to protect Francis, who may travel in armoured cars in what would be a departure from the norm for him.

"Clearly, we are now talking about a trip where security needs are different than other trips, so it is much more probable, possible that an armoured car will be used," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said on Tuesday.

Preparations for the pope's trip have been in high gear for weeks.

Fresh asphalt has been laid on some roads he is expected to use, and dozens of workers have been applying fresh paint to sidewalks and planting flowers around churches he will visit.

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CoronavirusEurope & RussiaIraqMiddle EastNewsVatican City
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