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Saturday, Sep 13, 2014

World

Kerry in Cairo to drum up support for 'war' on jihadists

AFP | Saturday, Sep 13, 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

CAIRO - Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in Egypt on Saturday on the latest leg of a regional tour aimed at forging a coalition for a US-led war on jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Egypt's formidable army is unlikely to take part in military action against the Islamic State jihadists (IS), but it has closely cooperated with the United States on counter-terrorism.

Washington says it is "at war" with IS and has named John Allen, a hawkish former commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, to coordinate its campaign against the movement that has seized large chunks of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Kerry, who flew in to Cairo from Ankara, held talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after meeting Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

Cairo's involvement in the coalition may help to soothe its relations with Washington, after the United States suspended - then restored - military aid following the army's ouster of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Morsi's successor, the former army chief Sisi, is fighting Islamist militants in the restive Sinai Peninsula who have expressed support for the Islamic State.

Having secured the backing of 10 Arab governments this week, Washington is seeking a stamp of approval for its campaign from Egypt and its religious institutions, which include the prestigious Al-Azhar university.

"One of the issues is to have their religious institutions to speak out against (IS), to talk about it in Friday sermons," said a US official travelling with Kerry.

"They (the Egyptians) are concerned about foreign fighters, an issue that has aggravated their domestic terrorism." The official said that the desire to get Egypt on board would not stop Kerry pressing Sisi on human rights concerns, including the jailing of three Al-Jazeera television journalists and the imprisonment of secular dissidents.

Washington has said it is "at war" with IS, although Kerry has been reluctant to use the term, speaking instead of a "major counter-terrorism operation".

On Friday, French President Francois Hollande travelled to Iraq for talks ahead of an international conference on Iraq in Paris on Monday.

Kerry was in neighbouring Turkey, to address the threat posed by the jihadists, who seized much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June.

'Broad-based coalition'

In Ankara, Kerry spoke of "a broad-based coalition with Arab nations, European nations, the United States and others".

Turkey is a fellow NATO member but has so far refused to open its air bases to US forces and other members of the coalition.

A Turkish official told AFP that Ankara's hands were tied by concern for 49 of its nationals, including diplomats and their children, who were kidnapped by the militants when they seized Iraq's second city Mosul in June.

In Jeddah on Thursday, Kerry secured the backing of 10 Arab governments for the push to weaken IS, whose appeal has drawn volunteers from around the world.

But Washington has insisted it will not work with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where three and a half years of conflict has allowed the emergence of IS, the most violent and powerful group in modern jihad.

IS has carried out a spate of atrocities in areas under its control, including attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, and beheadings of American journalists and enemy soldiers, many of which it has videotaped and posted on line.

Under mounting criticism for not taking swifter action, US President Barack Obama set out a strategy on Wednesday to stamp out the group, including air strikes in Syria and expanded operations in Iraq.

Over 150 US strikes

The CIA put the number of fighters in IS ranks at 20,000 to 31,500 in Iraq and Syria, up to three times the previous estimate.

US aircraft have carried out more than 150 strikes in Iraq since early August, the latest coming on Friday in the area of the country's largest dam, north of Mosul, in which two IS vehicles were destroyed.

Washington plans to help revamp the Iraqi army, which withered under the IS-led onslaught in June, and has announced it will fly combat aircraft from an airbase in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.

Three years after the end of the nearly nine-year US military presence in Iraq, which some observers say nurtured what is now IS, Obama has been careful to stress to the war-weary American public that he will not send ground forces into combat.

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