After talks in Saudi Arabia's summer capital Jeddah, Secretary of
State John Kerry won backing from 10 Arab countries - Egypt, Iraq,
Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states including rich rivals Saudi
Arabia and Qatar - for a coalition to fight the Sunni militants that
have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
"Arab nations play a critical role in that coalition, the leading
role really across all lines of effort: military support,
humanitarian aid, our work to stop the flow of illegal funds," Kerry
told a news conference.
Non-Arab Sunni power Turkey also attended the Jeddah talks but two
other major regional players - Shi'ite Iran and Syria itself - were
excluded, a sign of the difficulty of building a coalition across
the Middle East's sectarian battle lines.
The Arab states agreed in a communique to do more to stop the flow
of funds and fighters to Islamic State and help rebuild communities
"brutalized" by the group.
"The participating states agreed to do their share in the
comprehensive fight against ISIL, including ... as appropriate,
joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign
against ISIL," they said, using the acronym for Islamic State in
Iraq and the Levant, a former name for the group.
Kerry met the Arab leaders to drum up support a day after Obama
announced his plans to strike fighters in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. officials said Kerry also sought permission to make more use of
bases in the region and fly more warplanes overhead, issues that
were not mentioned in the communique. Kerry said none of the
countries in the coalition would send ground troops.
In a hopeful sign of outreach across the sectarian divide that has
spread war across the Middle East and fed Islamic State's militancy,
Sunni Saudi Arabia said it might open an embassy in Shi'ite-ruled
Iraq after decades of suspicion.
The Saudis, who support other Sunni armed movements in Syria but
consider Islamic State a terrorist group, have also promised to help
Obama's campaign by providing training camps for moderate Syrian
But Iran, the main Shi'ite power in the Middle East and supporter of
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, said it had severe reservations
over the new U.S.-led coalition, and doubted it would fight "the
root causes of terrorism", which it blames squarely on Sunni Arab
states like Saudi Arabia.
Obama announced his plans in a prime time address on Wednesday to
build an alliance to root out Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq,
plunging the United States into two conflicts in which nearly every
country in the Middle East has a stake.
The region has been galvanized since June when Islamic State
fighters, already in control of much of Syria, swept through
northern Iraq, seizing cities, slaughtering prisoners, and
proclaiming a "caliphate" that would rule over all Muslims.
The White House says the group is a threat to the West as well,
attracting fighters from around the world who could return to carry
out attacks at home.
Islamic State is a Sunni group that embraces a radical vision of a
Middle East ruled along 7th century precepts. Its fighters are
battling a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and a Syrian government
led by Assad, a follower of an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. They are
also fighting against more moderate Sunnis in Syria and against
Kurds on both side of the frontier.
An alliance against Islamic State is bound to require cooperation
from countries that consider each other enemies. Washington itself
supports the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq but opposes Assad in
Syria; it is allied to most Sunni Arab states while hostile to Iran.
A State Department official traveling with Kerry said the top U.S.
diplomat would the ask allies to make room for U.S. military
activity: "We may need enhanced basing and overflights ... there’s
going to be a meeting soon of defense ministers to work on these
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Kerry would also urge regional television news outlets, particularly
Qatari-owned Al Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, to air
anti-extremist messages. Governments in the region would be urged to
press mosques to preach against Islamic State.
"They need to get at the clerics because the clerics can get at the
mosques in the neighborhood and they have to expose ISIL for what it
is," the official told reporters.
Washington also wants more
efforts to stop the flow of money to the group by tackling oil
smuggling and cracking down on contributions from private donors,
the official said.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Reuters there was
extensive discussion in Jeddah about whether the campaign should be
broadened to include other Islamist groups, not just Islamic State.
This is something that strongly anti-Islamist Gulf Arab states such
as the United Arab Emirates had sought. Despite attending the talks,
Turkey was not mentioned in the communique, an omission attributed
by a senior Turkish official to sensitivities about 46 Turkish
hostages held by the fighters. Turkey will discuss the needs of the
alliance with Kerry on a visit to Ankara he starts on Friday, the
official said. IRAN'S SEVERE MISGIVINGS
Iran, for its part, blames Gulf Arabs for stoking the Sunni
militancy that led to Islamic State's rise. Foreign ministry
spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham, said on state television of the U.S.-led
alliance that there were "severe misgivings about its determination
to sincerely fight the root causes of terrorism".
The prospect of U.S. armed action in Syria also drew concern from
Russia, which has backed Assad. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said
air strikes in Syria would require a U.N. Security Council mandate
or be considered an act of aggression.
Kerry said he was surprised by such a statement in view of events in
Ukraine - a separate international crisis where Washington says
Moscow has sent troops, which Russia denies.
On Wednesday, before Obama's speech announcing the campaign, Kerry
visited Baghdad and endorsed a new power-sharing government for
Iraq, led by a Shi'ite, Haider al-Abadi, but also including Sunnis
Abadi was named last month to replace Nuri al-Maliki, blamed at home
and abroad for partly provoking Islamic State's surge by alienating
Sunnis from his government. Washington had long said that forming an
inclusive government in Iraq was necessary before Obama would commit
to major military action.
Kerry called Abadi's new Shi'ite-led government "the heart and
backbone" of the fight against Islamic State.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom might
reopen its embassy in Baghdad, closed since Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait in 1990. He added that the building needed to be renovated.
His Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim Jaafari said the reopening of the
embassy "would reflect well on relations".
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall, Parisa Hafezi and Orhan
Coskun,; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)
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