U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad for talks with the new Iraqi government on fighting Islamic State militants who are holding territory along the border with Syria.
Secretary Kerry will meet with new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who a senior State Department official says has “very clear objectives” and “a very different outlook” than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni minority played a part in the rise of Islamic State militants.
Before leaving Washington, Kerry said this new government “has the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities” and should now rule “with the same vision and sense of purpose” that brought it together.
“And in that effort, they should know the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqis as they implement their national plan to overcome the longstanding political and economic grievances that have for too long divided their country,” said Kerry.
A senior State Department official said Prime Minister al-Abadi plans to devolve security responsibilities, giving provincial leaders principle authority over local security through locally-recruited, salaried guardsmen. That’s meant to reassure not only Iraqi Sunni but also the semi-autonomous Kurds.
The senior State Department official said al-Abadi is not going to “take military units from the south and go into areas in the north and west to take on” the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL. “The people of Anbar will take on ISIL as they’re doing now in Haditha,” the official said, adding “The people of Ninewa will take on ISIL in Ninewa, and they will have assistance from the national army when they need it.”
Baghdad is the first stop on a week-long trip during which Kerry said he is working to build the “broadest coalition possible” against the Islamic State. He said some in that coalition will help train, arm, and equip Iraqi forces. Others will contribute humanitarian relief or help cut off militant funding or block the flow of foreign fighters.
President Barack Obama plans to address the American people Wednesday evening on his strategy to deal with the Islamic State threat.
While that will clearly involve a large number of Arab leaders with whom Kerry will meet in Saudi Arabia, the principle front is here in Iraq, where a senior State Department official said, “There’s a chance now. If we were talking two months ago on a lot of these issues, it would be hard to see a way forward.”
The new prime minister’s cabinet is still without ministers for defense and interior. The senior State Department official said al-Abadi was “extremely close” to getting consensus on those posts and he thought it a “wise move” to have delayed them.
The New York Times late Tuesday quoted a senior administration official as saying President Obama is ready to authorize airstrikes in Syria, but is trying to figure out how to do so without helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Several foreign policy experts briefed by Obama this week told The Washington Post that the president is prepared to use U.S. airstrikes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border in order to protect U.S. national security.