Kerry holds Iraq talks on US strategy against jihadists

Kerry holds Iraq talks on US strategy against jihadists

BAGHDAD - Agence France Presse
Kerry holds Iraq talks on US strategy against jihadists

US Secretary of State John Kerry looks out from a helicopter over Baghdad, Sept. 10. AFP Photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sept. 10 endorsed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's plans to mend Baghdad's relations with Sunnis and Kurds, and said Iraq's new government was "the heart and backbone" of the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Kerry, on a tour of the Middle East to build military, political and financial support to defeat the militants controlling parts of Iraq and Syria, said: "We all have an interest in supporting the new government of Iraq."

"The coalition that is at the heart of our global strategy I assure you will continue to grow and deepen in the days ahead ... because the United States and the world will simply not stand by to watch as ISIL's evil spreads." he said.

"A new and inclusive Iraqi government has to be the engine of our global strategy against ISIL. Now the Iraqi parliament has approved a new cabinet with new leaders, with representation from all Iraqi communities, it's full steam ahead."

In a statement later, after a speech by President Barack Obama in Washington laying out his strategy that depends on a strong coalition, Kerry said the new Baghdad government "forms the heart and the backbone of our anti-ISIL efforts."

Obama sought to rally Americans behind another war in a region he has long sought to leave, backed by what Washington hopes will be a coalition of NATO and Gulf Arab allies committed to a campaign that could stretch beyond the end of Obama's term in 2016.

U.S. officials said Saudi Arabia, where Kerry will meet many regional allies on Thursday, had agreed to host a training program for Syrian rebels who the United States hopes will eventually help in the fight against the Islamist State.

Kerry told Abadi he was encouraged by his plans for "reconstituting" the military and his commitment to political reforms reaching out to all of Iraq's religious and ethnic communities.

Abadi formed his government on Monday in what was billed as a break from the more abrasive style of his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, whose policies were blamed by many Iraqis for fuelling sectarianism and pushing the country to the brink of collapse.

ISIL fighters seized large chunks of Iraq's north and west this year, welcomed by many of the Sunni Muslim minority, who blamed the government for targeting them with indiscriminate arrests and discriminatory policies.

Abadi appealed to the international community to help Iraq fight ISIL, urging them "to act immediately to stop the spread of this cancer."

Abadi faces multiple crises, from the need to convince the Sunnis they should stand with Baghdad against Islamic State to persuading minority Kurds not to break away and convincing his own majority Shiites he can protect them from Sunni hardliners.

Kerry highlighted Abadi's readiness "to move forward rapidly on the oil agreements necessary for the Kurds, (and) on the representation of Sunnis in government."

In a sign of the eagerness among Iraq's political elite for a fresh start, new Parliament Speaker Selim al-Jubouri, a Sunni, told Kerry: "We are ... hopeful that we will be able to defeat terrorist organisations and establish democracy in Iraq."

Entrenched sectarian tensions

Unlike his predecessor, Abadi enjoys the support of nearly all of Iraq's major political groups, and the two most influential outside powers, Iran and the United States. U.S. officials hope he will present a unified front to weaken Islamic State, which has seized a third of both Iraq and Syria.

But it will be hard to placate all the forces in Iraq. On Sept. 10, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, head of a powerful Shiite movement, said Iraq should not cooperate with "occupiers", a reference to the United States. Sadr's opinions hold sway over tens of thousands of militants.

Three car bombs exploded on Wednesday in a Shi'ite neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad, killing nine people and wounding 29, a police officer said.

While it is unclear what steps will be taken to strengthen the Iraqi army after its collapse in the face of an ISIL onslaught in June, the senior U.S. official said tentative plans for a new National Guard unit, announced by Abadi on Monday, were intended to deprive Islamic State of safe havens by handing over security to the provinces.

Abadi in parliament on Sept. 8 described the proposed National Guard units as a means to absorb the Shi'ite militia groups now taking up the slack for a badly depleted army in fighting ISIL. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said the units would be a mechanism for Sunni Muslims to defend their provinces against Islamic State. Kerry also touted the idea during his visit, saying he expected Abadi to take up the initiative in next week's cabinet meeting.

Baghdad has lost control of the main Sunni provinces and the central government has yet to convince Sunnis it can be trusted.

Sectarian tensions appeared as entrenched as ever, possibly worsened by a month of U.S. air strikes on Sunni jihadists.

While Kurdish and Shiite fighters have regained ground, Sunni Muslims who fled the violence near the northern town of Amerli are being prevented from returning home and some have had their houses pillaged and torched. Sunni Arabs are also feeling a backlash in villages where they used to live alongside Kurds, who accuse them of collaborating with ISIL.

On Sept. 10, Shiite militia north of Baghdad forced dozens of Sunni families from their homes during an offensive, stealing possessions and burning houses, a Shi'ite policeman and government source told Reuters, asking for anonymity to allow them to report on the offensive, which they said they opposed.

While the U.S. official praised weeks of U.S. air strikes as "highly precise" and "strategically effective", he acknowledged much work lay ahead. "It's going to be a very difficult, long road to get there," he said. Any campaign to defeat ISIL could take one to three years, Kerry said.

Kerry was to meet Jordan's King Abdullah later on Wednesday, and travel on Sept. 11 to Saudi Arabia for talks that will include Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

Saudi Arabia is unnerved by the rapid advance of Islamic State and fears it could radicalise some of its own citizens.

A senior U.S. official in Washington, speaking after a phone call between Obama and Saudi King Abdullah to discuss cooperation on IsSIL, said there was "a commitment from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... to be a full partner with us," including by hosting the rebels' training program.

Arab League foreign ministers agreed on Sept. 7 to take all necessary measures to confront Islamic State.

In Jordan, Kerry is expected to receive requests for extra military aid, including helicopters and border security equipment, along with part of the $500 million the Obama administration has proposed to accelerate training of moderate Syrian rebels, a Jordanian official told Reuters.

French President François Hollande will travel to Baghdad on Sept. 12 ahead of a conference of regional and international powers in Paris on Monday to coordinate efforts to tackle Islamic State.