JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Syrian rebels can help push back jihadists in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, during a meeting with moderate rebel leader Ahmad Jarba in Saudi Arabia.
Kerry’s short visit to Jeddah came as the United States confirmed it was flying armed drones over Baghdad.
The top U.S. diplomat, who landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in the afternoon, also met Saudi King Abdullah a day after hosting urgent talks in Paris with the Saudi, Jordanian and UAE foreign ministers on the widening crisis in Iraq and Syria.
Following several signals in recent weeks by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House Thursday asked for $500 million from Congress to train and equip vetted members of Syria’s opposition, the most significant U.S. move so far to support those fighting against President Bashar Assad.
Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed the huge U.S. boost to his forces, battling to oust Syrian President Assad.
“The situation is very grave and there are sectarian leaders ruling the country so we have to have greater efforts on the part of the U.S. and regional powers to address the situation in Iraq,” Jarba said.
Jarba told Kerry that the worsening situation meant more effort would be needed by both Washington and Riyadh, as well as others, to address the situation in Iraq, whose border with Syria he said was now “practically open.”
“The policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after eight years in power have resulted in greater division. Now the situation is very grave,” he said.
Kerry said “the moderate opposition in Syria ... has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against [Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria] ISIS’s presence ... not just in Syria, but also in Iraq.
“Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward,” he said
Kerry met King Abdullah at his palace in Jeddah, where the U.S. delegation was ushered into the large marble-columned lobby of the palace. The king, who is over 90, spoke clearly in Arabic but did not get up when Kerry entered the large room.
King Abdullah has consistently called for greater U.S. military support for the Syrian rebels, whom the Gulf kingdom has long backed. Saudi Arabia has also long distrusted Maliki as being too close to Iran and sees him as ruling on behalf of Iraqi Shiites to the exclusion of Sunnis.
In Washington, a senior American official announced that the U.S. military was flying “a few” armed drones over Baghdad to defend American troops and diplomats if necessary.
But officials said the drones would not be used for offensive strikes against ISIS.
In Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein and the second major city to fall to ISIS more than two weeks ago, Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus. Government commandos launched an airborne assault on the campus Thursday, a rare push back into rebel-held territory.
“My family and I left early this morning. We could hear gunfire, and helicopters are striking the area,” said Farhan Ibrahim Tamimi, a professor at the university who fled Tikrit for a nearby town.
ISIS fighters’ dramatic advance after capturing the main northern city Mosul June 10 has placed Iraq’s very survival as a state in jeopardy, threatening to reignite the wholesale sectarian slaughter that saw at least 100,000 Iraqis killed during U.S. occupation from 2003-11.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said Friday analysis of photographs and satellite imagery indicated ISIS had killed as many as 190 men in at least two locations over three days after they captured Tikrit.