Baghdad: Pope Francis landed in Baghdad on Friday to start an historic four-day visit to Iraq, the first-ever papal visit to the country.
An Alitalia plane carrying him, his entourage, a security detail, and about 75 journalists, touched down at Baghdad International Airport slightly ahead of schedule just before 2 pm local time.
"I am happy to be making trips again," he said in brief comments to reporters aboard the plane, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic which has prevented him from travelling.
"This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years," Francis said, before donning a mask and greeting each reporter individually, without shaking hands.
"With love and peace, Iraq's people and government are welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis and reaffirming the depths of this humanitarian bond," Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi said ahead of the meeting.
A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac in Baghdad's international airport with Mustafa Al Kadhimi on hand to greet him. Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.
A largely unmasked choir sang songs as both pope and premier made their way to a welcome area in the airport.
Hundreds of people had gathered along the airport road with hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope's plane touching down.
Pope Francis arrived inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government, to meet with President Barham Salih and other officials.
Horsemen carrying both Iraqi and Vatican flags escorted his motorcade inside the Green Zone, which houses key government buildings and foreign embassies.
Salih greeted Francis outside the presidential palace. Both men wore masks as a band played the Vatican and Iraqi national anthems.
Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect the Pope during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader's safety.
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.
Pope Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq's top Shiite cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
The trip is the pope's 33rd outside Italy. He is due to return to Rome on Monday morning.
The flags of Iraq and the Vatican City fluttered outside Baghdad airport in anticipation of his arrival.
Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan "We are all Brothers" decorating the main thoroughfare.
In central Tahrir square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
Francis's whirlwind tour will cover four cities in the north and south of the country, taking him by plane, helicopter and possibly armoured car to areas that most foreign dignitaries are unable to reach, let alone in such a short space of time.
He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric 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.
Mosul is a former Daesh stronghold, and churches and other buildings there still bear the strains of conflict.