BEIRUT

Middle East

Kerry urges Arab states to not fund Sunni fighters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in Cairo, Egypt Sunday, June 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Brendan Smalowski, Pool)

CAIRO: Arab countries should resist funding Sunni fighters in what is turning into a cross-border war between Iraq and Syria because that support eventually could help the fast-spreading insurgency in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday.

Kerry said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has become a threat to the entire Mideast, and perhaps beyond.

"This is a critical moment," Kerry said after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

He said the group is a "threat not only to Iraq, but to the entire region."

The U.S. is looking for ways to work with Mideast nations, most of them led by Sunni governments, to curb the group's growth.

Some officials in the United States and the Mideast have suggested privately that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must leave office before Iraq's Sunnis will believe their concerns will be heard by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

But al-Maliki has showed no indication he is willing to step down, and his political party won the most votes in national elections in April.

Both Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said it's up to Iraqis to decide their leaders, but at the same time they said Baghdad must create an inclusive government if it hopes to quell the violence.

Shoukry, in a joint news conference with Kerry, said Egypt is worried about any spillover effects the unrest in Iraq will cause its Arab neighbors.

He said Egypt is looking to work with other countries to help the Iraqi people.

Kerry arrived in Egypt Sunday on a surprise trip to push for democracy in the politically tumultuous country as Washington quietly released $572 million in military aid.

Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, was to press the former army chief during his lightning trip to install greater political freedoms and discuss security challenges.

The top U.S. diplomat's tour is also focused on trying to find a political solution in Iraq, where Islamic militants were Sunday making new gains in an offensive that has triggered international alarm.

"Obviously this is a critical moment of transition in Egypt, enormous challenges," Kerry said as he met newly-appointed Shoukri.

But he vowed "the US is very interested in working closely" with the new government "in order to make this transition as rapidly and smoothly as possible."

Since President Mohammad Morsi was toppled by Sisi in July 2013, a government crackdown on his supporters has left more than 1,400 people dead in street clashes and at least 15,000 jailed.

U.S. officials warned Washington has deep concerns about the government's "polarizing tactics" and acknowledged they were "balancing" different strategic interests in what is a "complicated" relationship.

Kerry's visit comes a day after an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences for 183 Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohammad Badie, after a speedy mass trial that sparked an international outcry.

Kerry's latest diplomatic mission, that will also see him visit Amman, Brussels and Paris, is expected to focus on uniting Iraq's fractious leaders and urging its neighbors to use their sway to ensure the speedy formation of a new government while cutting the flow of funds to the militants.

U.S. officials also revealed that $572 million in aid, which had been frozen since October, was released to the Cairo government about 10 days ago after finally winning a green light from Congress. It will mainly go to pay existing defense contracts.

U.S. officials announced in April they planned to resume some of the annual $1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Cairo, including 10 Apache helicopter gunships for counterterrorism efforts in the Sinai Peninsula.

But the aircraft remain in storage in the U.S., an official confirmed Sunday.

Sisi won some 97 percent of the vote in May elections nearly a year after the toppling of Morsi, and installed an interim government.

"There's a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed," a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Kerry.

"We have a longstanding relationship ... that's built on several different pillars. It's at a difficult juncture right now, that's true, and we have serious concerns about the political environment," the official said.

Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have a peace treaty with Israel, has long been seen as a key strategic ally and a cornerstone to regional stability.

But the political turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak has paralyzed Egypt, leaving it more concerned with domestic problems than regional matters despite the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Shoukri hoped for "a fruitful discussion" saying Kerry's trip was "a very important visit for us and for our bilateral relations, and also given the regional situation."

Washington's concerns about Cairo include a new law controlling demonstrations, "the lack of space for dissent, mass trials and death sentences," the official said.

"We are concerned that some of the tactics they're using to address their security issues are polarising... they in some ways radicalize certain aspects of Egyptian society in ways that are not supportive of overall stability."

Kerry was also hearing directly from civil society leaders about the situation in the country in a roundtable at a Cairo hotel.

Kerry will insist in his meetings that the United States still needs to see a return to the rule of law if U.S.- Egypt ties are to improve.

 

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Summary

Arab countries should resist funding Sunni fighters in what is turning into a cross-border war between Iraq and Syria because that support eventually could help the fast-spreading insurgency in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday.

Kerry said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has become a threat to the entire Mideast, and perhaps beyond.

Shoukry, in a joint news conference with Kerry, said Egypt is worried about any spillover effects the unrest in Iraq will cause its Arab neighbors.

Kerry arrived in Egypt Sunday on a surprise trip to push for democracy in the politically tumultuous country as Washington quietly released $572 million in military aid.

Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, was to press the former army chief during his lightning trip to install greater political freedoms and discuss security challenges.

Kerry was also hearing directly from civil society leaders about the situation in the country in a roundtable at a Cairo hotel.

Kerry will insist in his meetings that the United States still needs to see a return to the rule of law if U.S.-Egypt ties are to improve.


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