Middle East

Iraqi divide ‘strains anti-ISIS coalition’

MANAMA: The international coalition fighting ISIS extremists could be jeopardized if the Baghdad government fails to bridge Iraq’s sectarian divide, the U.S. military’s top officer warned Monday.

Iraq’s political leaders have yet to deliver on promises to reach out to the Sunni population and have raised concerns in the region by forging closer ties to Iran, Gen. Martin Dempsey said after spending several hours in Baghdad.

In the longer term, the solidarity of the anti-ISIS coalition – which includes Sunni Arab states – could be put at risk, Dempsey told reporters in Manama.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elarabi called Monday for the creation of a unified Arab force to battle Islamist extremist groups.

“There is an urgent need for the creation of a multipurpose common Arab military force ... able to intervene rapidly to fight terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups,” Elarabi said.

Dempsey, for his part, said: “I come away a bit concerned that it’s going to be difficult to sustain the coalition for the rest of the challenge – which is transregional – unless the government of Iraq can actually form that national unity platform to which they committed.”

With ISIS “under pressure in almost every corner of Iraq,” the “military aspect” of the campaign is on course and “going fine,” the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

But an overriding goal for Washington and other coalition members was to ensure that Iraq’s Shiite-led authorities also upheld the rights of its Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, he said.

Flying over Baghdad by helicopter earlier, Dempsey noted Shiite militia banners flying over many buildings, describing “the plethora of flags, only one of which happens to be the Iraqi flag.”

He said Sunni Arab countries in the region, several of which are taking part in airstrikes in Syria, were anxious over Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Iran’s role has taken on new importance in recent days as Shiite militia armed and trained by Tehran are playing a high-profile role in a major offensive against ISIS in Tikrit, north of the Iraqi capital.

In a joint news conference with Dempsey in Baghdad, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi made no apologies for enlisting military aid from Iran.

“We are in a state of war and we look to our friends to help us in this confrontation,” Obeidi said.

But he said Iraq’s approach was “balanced” and added: “I want to assure you that Iraq does not want to enter into any conflicts with any of the countries around us.”

In his talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Obeidi, Dempsey said he acknowledged their “instinct” to look for assistance from any country ready to provide it.

But he also stressed that “they should also be aware of the challenge of holding together the ... coalition,” Dempsey said.

ISIS has sought to exploit the grievances of alienated Sunnis in Iraq, and Dempsey has urged Baghdad to tackle what he calls the “underlying” sectarian issue.

The general, who served several tours of Iraq during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation, said it was unclear whether Iraq’s links to Iran were only about battling the ISIS or part of a broader agenda.

“What I’m trying to sort out is the degree to which the near-term embrace of the assistance they’re receiving from Iran is a reaction to the existential threat [from ISIS] or whether it’s something longer-term,” he said.

“And by the way, it could be longer-term and not necessarily negative,” he added.

Throughout his trip to the region, which included talks with leaders in Bahrain and with his French counterpart aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf, Dempsey said he stressed the importance of maintaining the global coalition arrayed against ISIS.

“I reminded everyone – the Bahrainis, the French and the Iraqis – that fundamental to the success of the campaign is the solidarity of the coalition and anything that could threaten that solidarity we really need to be alert to,” he said.

The visit came as nearly 30,000 troops and militiamen have been involved in a week-old operation to recapture Tikrit, one of the jihadis’ main hubs.

Monday, Kurdish peshmerga forces launched an offensive south and west of the oil city of Kirkuk, increasing the pressure on the last ISIS strongholds east of the Tigris River.

Kurdish security official Westa Rasul said the operation was backed by coalition air support.

Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader said security forces were proceeding cautiously to avoid explosives planted by ISIS.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2015, on page 8.

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