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French jihadists to stand trial in Iraq

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Iraqi President Barham Salih for talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 25, 2019
French President Emmanuel Macron greets Iraqi President Barham Salih for talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 25, 2019 REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

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.   

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  "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.

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.

Macron also said he would visit Iraq in the coming months, after France announced in January that it would provide one billion euros 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 in order to avoid the sectarian violence that has beset the country for years.

Saleh lauded France and the EU for its "model relationship" in assisting Iraq, telling Macron: "We hope to welcome you in Baghdad soon."

Earlier Monday, Saleh met with UNESCO officials at the agency's Paris headquarters to discuss efforts to rebuild Mosul, which was left in ruins by the months-long fight to oust IS in 2017.

 'Good news'

 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.

That had raised fears the US-backed Kurdish forces who have captured dozens of foreign fighters in Syria would no longer have the resources to guard them.

"The American decision is good news... It corresponds with the need to remain alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces" led by the Kurds in Syria, 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.

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.

The fighters, who were turned over to Iraq 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.

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