PARIS – French President Francois Hollande is en route to Iraq, as his country prepares possible airstrikes with a U.S.-led coalition against extremists who have seized territory around the region.
French diplomats say Hollande's visit, and a conference Paris is hosting Monday on Iraq, are the first steps in a long-term effort to bolster the Iraqi government and weaken militants from the Islamic State group.
Hollande and his defense and foreign ministers are expected to arrive early Friday in Baghdad, where they will meet the new prime minister and president.
Hollande has been one of the most militarily aggressive leaders in modern French history, sending troops to Mali and Central African Republic. France was the first European government to start arming Kurdish authorities against Islamic State militants last month.
This is in part because France fears violence on its own soil. Authorities are struggling to stop the flow of hundreds of French radicals who have joined extremists in Syria and Iraq and who could return to Europe to stage attacks. A Frenchman who went to Syria and held American journalists hostage is the chief suspect in a May attack on a Brussels Jewish museum that left four dead.
"These people have only one idea: to rape, crucify, assassinate. We must all mobilize to make them retreat, neutralize them and get rid of them," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week of the Islamic State militants.
Hollande is expected to discuss airstrikes with Iraqi authorities during his visit. France is likely to start strikes very soon in coordination with the U.S. if the Iraqi government requests it, but won't send ground troops, a senior French official said Thursday. The official was not authorized to be publicly named according to government policy.
The French government — which vigorously opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a decade ago — insists any action be at the request of the Iraqi government. France does not want to be a pawn or lapdog in a U.S.-run war, but will play a "significant" role in the coalition and make its own decisions on what to contribute, the official said.
Unlike the U.S., France is stopping short of action in Syria, at least for now. The French fear that airstrikes on extremists in Syria could strengthen President Bashar Assad's hand and raise international legal problems.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.