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Pope arrives in Iraq, calls for end to religious strife, violence

Pope Francis, making the first trip by a pontiff to Iraq, made an impassioned call today for an end to the militant violence, fratricide and religious strife

Pope Francis, making the first trip by a pontiff to Iraq, made an impassioned call today for an end to the militant violence, fratricide and religious strife that has plagued the country for decades, saying peacemakers should finally be given a chance, Reuters reported.

"May the clash of arms be silenced … may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism," he said, addressing Iraqi President Barham Salih, politicians and diplomats at the presidential palace.

Francis arrived at Baghdad airport under tight security, after telling reporters on his plane that he felt duty-bound to make the "emblematic" trip because the country "has been martyred for so many years".

READ: Iraq deploys Special Forces to secure Pope's upcoming visit

Hundreds of people gathered in small clusters to see him being driven into Baghdad in a bulletproof BMW, a departure for a pope who normally insists on using small, normal cars.

A motorcade of dozens of vehicles accompanied him out of the airport compound, which recently came under rocket fire from militia groups.

As Francis and the president walked together, the 84-year-old pope limped noticeably, indicating that his sciatica may have flared up again. The condition forced him to cancel several events earlier this year.

In his speech at the palace, Francis criticised factional and foreign interests that have destabilised Iraq and the wider region and hit ordinary people the hardest.

"Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups," Francis said.

The pope's whirlwind tour will take him by plane, helicopter and cars to four cities. He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the army had to empty the streets for security reasons last year for a visit by Iraq's prime minister.

The pontiff will also visit Ur, birthplace of the Prophet Abraham.

Iraq's security has improved since the defeat of Daesh in 2017, but the country continues to be a theatre for global and regional score-settling, especially a bitter US-Iran rivalry that has played out on Iraqi soil. In addition to this, Daesh sleeper cells continue to carry out attacks.

READ: Cross-section of citizens oppose division of Iraq

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