With a new Iraqi government finally in place and a growing Mideast consensus on defeating insurgent threats, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq's Shiite leader on Wednesday to quickly deliver more power to wary Sunnis — or jeopardize any hope of defeating the Islamic State group.
Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. As Kerry and al-Abadi were meeting, two car bombs exploded simultaneously in the southeastern neighborhood of New Baghdad, killing 13 people.
The trip marks the first high-level U.S. meeting with al-Abadi since he become prime minister, and it aimed to symbolize the Obama administration's support for Iraq nearly three years after U.S. troops left the war-torn country. But it also signaled to al-Abadi, a Shiite Muslim, that the U.S. was watching to make sure he gives Iraqi Sunnis more control over their local power structures and security forces, as promised.
Al-Abadi's predecessor, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for years shut Sunnis out of power and refused to pay tribal militias salaries or give them government jobs — and in turn sowed widespread resentment that Islamic State extremists seized on as a recruiting tool.
Al-Abadi hosted Kerry in the ornate presidential palace where Saddam Hussein once held court, and which the U.S. and coalition officials later used as office space in the years immediately following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In brief remarks following their meeting, al-Abadi noted that Iraq's violence is largely a spillover from the neighboring civil war in Syria, where the Islamic State militants have a safe haven.
"Of course, our role is to defend our country, but the international community is responsible to protect Iraq, and protect the whole region," al-Abadi said, speaking in English. "What is happening in Syria is coming across to Iraq. We cannot cross that border — it is an international border. But there is a role for the international community and for the United Nations ... and for the United States to act immediately to stop this threat."
Kerry praised the new Iraqi leadership for what he described as its "boldness" in quickly forming a new government and promising to embrace political reforms that would give more authority to Sunnis and resolve a longstanding oil dispute between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in the nation's north.
"We're very encouraged," Kerry said. He assured al-Abadi that President Barack Obama will outline plans later Wednesday "of exactly what the United States is prepared to do, together with many other countries in a broad coalition, in order to take on this terrorist structure, which is unacceptable by any standard anywhere in the world."
Kerry also met with new Iraqi parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, one of the country's highest-ranking Sunnis, who expressed hope that Iraq will overcome terror threats and establish a vital democracy — two issues that have dogged the nation for years.
"We are before a very critical and sensitive period in the history of Iraq," al-Jabouri told Kerry.
Kerry's trip comes on the eve of a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he and Arab leaders across the Mideast will discuss what nations can contribute to an ever-growing global coalition against the Islamic State. The U.S and nine other counties — Canada, Australia and across Europe — agreed last week to create a united front against the mostly Sunni extremist group that has overrun much of northern Iraq and Syria. Thursday's meeting in Jeddah seeks to do much of the same and will gauge the level of support from the Sunni-dominated Mideast region. Kerry also was to visit Jordan.
Meanwhile, in Paris, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — would take part in a conference in the French capital Monday that will focus on stabilizing Iraq. During a French Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius brought up the issue of whether Iran would be invited to the Paris conference, but it "has not yet been decided," according to Le Foll.
Officials hope to have a strategy blueprint against the Islamic State, backed up with specific steps nations are willing to take, by the opening of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York at the end of the month. Obama was expected to discuss U.S. commitments in a televised address Wednesday from the White House.
White House officials said Tuesday that Obama will ask Congress to quickly authorize the arming and training of Syrian opposition forces but will press forward without formal sign-off from lawmakers on a broader military and political effort to combat the Islamic State group.
The president's broader strategy could include more wide-ranging airstrikes against targets in Iraq and possibly in Syria, and hinges on military and political commitments from allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
The U.S. already has launched about 150 airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Iraq over the past month, a mission undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government and without formal authorization from Congress. And it has sent military advisers, supplies and humanitarian aid to help Iraqi national troops and Kurdish forces beat back the insurgents. It was not clear what, if any, military action Obama would be willing to take in Syria, where he has resisted any mission that might inadvertently help President Bashar Assad and his government in Damascus, which has so far survived a bloody three-year war against Sunni rebels. Obama has ruled out putting U.S. combat troops on the ground.
Peter Neumann, a leading terrorism expert at Kings College London, this week estimated that more than 12,000 foreigners from 74 counties — including about 100 Americans — have gone to Syria to fight with Sunni rebel groups, including the Islamic State. It was not clear how many of them have joined the Islamic State as opposed to moderate rebel fighters or even other extremists.
How to dry up foreign funding for the Islamic State would also be a key priority at the conference, said a senior U.S. official, as well as countering insurgent propaganda that uses an extremist view of Islam to attract religious recruits. The official briefed reporters under ground rules that he would not be identified.
But much of the attention at the Jeddah meeting will be on how much military support nations are willing to send to Iraq and moderate Sunni rebels in Syria. That could include intelligence and supplies, and use of deadly force, including airstrikes.
The senior U.S. official said al-Abadi has promised to create a national guard of local fighters to secure each of Iraq's 18 provinces, each of which is run by a governor. That would ensure that the Iraqi Army and its mostly Shiite force would not be in charge of security in Sunni regions. In doing so, that would bring salaried jobs, government pensions and other benefits to areas of Iraq that for years largely were snubbed under al-Maliki's eight years in power.
Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.
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