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The Pope departs from Rome for historic first-ever visit by a pontiff to Iraq

Pope Francis left Rome on Friday to start a four-day trip to Iraq, his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012 and the first visit by a pontiff to the country.

An Alitalia airplane carrying the pope, his entourage, a security detail, and about 75 journalists, left Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport for the four and a half hour flight to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Francis during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader's safety.

Pope Francis boarded an Alitalia flight from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport on Friday bound for the Iraqi capital Baghdad - where he will complete a four-day tour

Francis vowed that the journey would go ahead despite concerns for his safety after a rocket attack on a US airbase on Wednesday killed one person

The trip marks the first ever visit by a pope to Iraq. John Paul II had planned to go in 1999, but abandoned the trip amid security concerns and political pressure

The four-day visit is designed to provide hope to Iraq's Christians after years of persecution and increase the Vatican's outreach to Islam

On Wednesday morning, 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours after that attack, the pope reaffirmed he would be going to Iraq.

The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.

Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Stops on the trip include the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad which was the site of a massacre of Christians in 2010 and a church in Qaraqosh that was left charred by ISIS attacks.  

Francis has said the journey will complete the dream of Pope John Paul II who had planned to visit the country in 1999, but never made the trip over fears for his security and concerns that then-ruler Saddam Hussein would use it as propaganda. 

Speaking on Wednesday, Francis said: 'The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much.  

'The Iraqi people are waiting for us, they were waiting for Saint John Paul II, who was forbidden to go.

'One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful.'

Before leaving the Vatican the Pope met 12 refugees from Iraq who have been living in Italy.

The trip is the pope's 33rd outside Italy. He is due to return to Rome on Monday morning.

At least 10 rockets slammed into a military base in western Iraq hosting US-led coalition troops earlier on Wednesday, security sources said, leaving one civilian contractor dead.

The attack on the sprawling Ain al-Assad base in Iraq's western desert comes after several weeks of escalating US-Iran tensions on Iraqi soil.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Francis said the pope would be travelling by armoured vehicle and that he would not be meeting crowds.

'This is a particular situation, that's why the transports will all be in a closed vehicle, meaning it will be complicated to see the pope on the streets,' spokesman Matteo Brunei said.

'There will be a number of meetings but none will be more than a few hundred people,' he said.

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