Nearly 30 countries agreed Monday in Paris to support Iraq “by any means necessary” in fighting Islamic State militants. Foreign ministers from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries agreed on “the urgent need” to remove the group from areas it controls in Iraq and promised Baghdad military assistance.
Opening the conference with Iraqi President Fouad Massoum, French President Francois Hollande said there was “no time to lose” against the Sunni extremists, who released a video at the weekend showing the beheading of British aid worker David Haines.
“Iraq’s struggle against terrorism is also our struggle,” he said, referring to fears that the thousands of European citizens believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria for Islamic State could return home to stage attacks.
Around 40 countries have agreed to play some part in a US-led campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State group, in the words of US President Barack Obama.
Prior to Haines, two US journalists were executed since last month by Islamic State. All were beheaded by a hooded executioner who spoke with a British accent.
Massoum told the ministers that the only hope of keeping the extremists at bay was to take the fight to them “wherever they are.”
“Militarily we don’t need troops on the ground but rather air cover and the expertise of countries like France,” he told Europe 1 radio in an interview.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has spent the last week travelling the Middle East to drum up support for a new US-led offensive in the region, 11 years after the start of the invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Several Arab states have agreed to support the operation. Saudi Arabia has agreed to train the moderate rebels. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that the alliance could play a role in coordinating the campaign as it did with the 2011 air campaign against Moamer Gaddafi’s forces in Libya.
“At this stage I won’t exclude anything,” Rasmussen said in Brussels.
Rasmussen, whose mandate ends this month, said there had been no request yet for NATO involvement.
The Paris conference focused on Iraq, where the militants made lightning gains in early August before being stalled by US airstrikes. Obama last week vowed to expand bombardments to the jihadists’ positions across the border in Syria.
Visiting a French airbase in Abu Dhabi, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France would begin military reconnaissance flights Monday over Iraq. Like Britain, France is reluctant, however, to join in any air campaign in Syria.
While Iraq’s government requested Western assistance against Islamic State, Western governments have said they will not work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meaning any airstrikes there would lack an international legal framework and be fraught with risk.
Hollande proposed instead bolstering the moderate Syrian rebels, who rose up against al-Assad’s regime in 2011 only to be shunted aside by Islamic State and other jihadist groups over time.
Notably absent from the conference was Iran, which supports both al-Assad against the rebellion in Syria, and the Shiite-led government in Iraq.
French media said Paris was in favour of inviting Iran but that Washington was opposed, despite rumours of Iran and the US cooperating against Islamic State in Iraq.
Annoyed at the snub, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei criticized the US-led alliance as “partisan and therefore useless.” Pressed about why Washington did not want the Iranians at the talks, the US State Department said Tehran’s inclusion would have been “premature.”
The White House underscored that the United States does not coordinate military action or share intelligence with Iran. Spokesman Josh Earnest conceded that there have been discussions about the Iraq-Syria conflict on the sidelines of nuclear talks with Iran.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said there was a “good chance” there would be more discussions on the margins of the nuclear talks, which resume Thursday in New York.
On the ground in Syria, Kurdish forces who have been combatting Islamic State were reported to have gained ground near the north-eastern city of Qamishli.
The Hawar news agency, which is close to the dominant Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said the Kurdish People’s Protection Units had wrested 14 villages in the Tel Hamis area from the extremists. There were reports of heavy civilian casualties. SAPA