Pope Francis embarks on risky, historic Iraq tour / REUTERS

Pope Francis embarked on Friday on the first ever papal visit to Iraq, his riskiest trip since his election in 2013, saying he felt duty-bound to make the "emblematic" visit because the country had suffered so much for so long.

His first stop after his plane touched down at Baghdad International Airport was to meet Iraqi President Barham Salih at the presidential palace, where a red carpet, military band and flock of doves greeted the pontiff, Reuters reported.

Read alsoZelensky asks Pope Francis to help with release of prisoners (Photo)Iraq has deployed thousands of additional security personnel to protect the 84-year-old pope during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for his safety.

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

"I am happy to be making trips again," he said in brief comments to reporters aboard his plane. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented Francis from travelling and the Iraq trip is his first outside Italy since November 2019.

"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.