President of the Iraqi self-ruled Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani (R) introduces French President Francois Hollande to Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers as they visit a military outpost on the outskirts of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, outside the Kurdish city of Erbil, Iraq, January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Ena/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Elizabeth Pineau
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - France will fight any French jihadists it finds on the battlefields of Iraq, arrest them if they return home and work to de-radicalize their children, President Francois Hollande said on a visit to Baghdad on Monday.
There are about 60 French citizens fighting alongside Islamic State militants in the northern city of Mosul alone and hundreds more in the rest of the country and Syria, French diplomatic sources said.
"We will fight them like (we fight) all jihadists ... since they are attacking us, since they prepare attacks on our own territory," Hollande told a news conference.
The children of returning militants would be taken in and "de-radicalised," he said on the one-day visit. "We are preparing for these returns and the very particular processing of these children."
The Socialist president, whose country has faced a series of militant attacks in the past two years, said French soldiers serving in a U.S.-led coalition against the jihadists were preventing more mass killings at home.
"Everything that contributes to reconstructing Iraq is an additional step to avoiding Daesh strikes on our own territory," Hollande said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Hollande has seen his popularity rating plummet since taking office, amid frustration over his handling of the economy and national security. He has said he will not stand again in presidential elections this year.
He will travel later on Monday to the Kurdish city of Erbil, where France will deliver about 38 tonnes of humanitarian aid, including medicine, officials said.
The European Union police agency Europol last month warned of the risk of an increased rate in the return of foreign fighters.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are currently fighting to push Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim militant group, from Mosul, the fighters' last major stronghold in the country, but are facing fierce resistance.
It will likely take weeks to recapture Mosul, Hollande said. "Daesh is stepping back and Daesh will be defeated," he said.
"It's a year that will be a year of victory, here, against terrorism."
At least 16 people were killed by a car bomb in a busy square in Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City district on Monday, while Islamic State attacks on military positions north of the capital killed 16 pro-government fighters, sources said.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Heavens)