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Arab nations offering airstrikes against Islamic State, Kerry says

U.S. officials hope to assemble as many as 100 countries to provide military and nonmilitary assistance, and to lend international legitimacy to President Obama's pledge last week to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State.
(Saul Loeb / Pool Photo)

Several Arab nations have offered to launch airstrikes on Islamic State militants, giving a boost to the Obama administration’s efforts to knit a coalition of allies for the promised U.S.-led offensive against the Sunni extremist group, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday.

But President Obama won’t approve widening the current U.S. air war in northern Iraq until the coalition is firmed up, said senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing internal plans. Nor, they said, would the White House extend the campaign until the new Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad does more to bring the marginalized Sunni Arab minority into Iraq’s fractured political process.

The White House is watching closely to ensure Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider Abadi, keeps his pledge to include Sunni officials in the new government. More robust U.S. military action in Iraq is contingent on Abadi’s success, said one of the senior officials.

The warnings come as several Arab governments have offered help directly to U.S. military officials, or to the Iraqis, who are struggling to push the extremists out of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north and west. The officials did not identify the Arab states involved, so their level of support was difficult to determine.

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“It’s not appropriate to start announcing, this country will do this and this country will do that,” Kerry said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” The Obama administration is still “putting together the whole package,” he said.

“I can tell you right here and now that we have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what is required,” he said.

The symbolic significance of such help is more important to Washington than the practical assistance it would give the Pentagon.

U.S. officials hope to assemble as many as 100 countries to provide military and nonmilitary assistance, and to lend international legitimacy to Obama’s pledge last week to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State. The militant group has recently beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker and has killed thousands of Iraqi and Syrian troops and civilians while seizing about one-third of the territory of the two countries.

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The president will travel to Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday for briefings at U.S. Central Command, which oversees American troops in 20 countries in the Middle East and Central and South Asia, including Iraq and Syria.

Obama also will meet with John Allen, the retired four-star Marine general and former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, who has been tapped to coordinate the international coalition to battle Islamic State.

Allen was a top commander in western Iraq in 2007 when U.S. troops successfully turned Sunni tribesmen against Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, in an effort that was dubbed the Sunni Awakening.

Many Sunni and Shiite Muslim nations alike are deeply worried about the threat posed by Islamic State, which broke away from Al Qaeda this year. U.S. intelligence officials believe Islamic State leaders now view their group as in competition with Al Qaeda for followers and influence.

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Surging out of Syria last year, the group’s fighters now control an area in the Tigris-Euphrates basin about the size of Britain. Its leaders have declared an Islamic caliphate and vowed to expand their control to Muslim countries around the globe.

Shiite Iran, a longtime U.S. enemy, is among those helping Iraq in its battle against the militants. But many leaders in the Middle East fear domestic political blowback if they’re seen joining another American-led military campaign that Sunnis believe ultimately would help Tehran.

Kerry said some countries have offered to send ground troops to help in Iraq and Syria, but he didn’t specify whether they were Arab nations. He said U.S. officials “aren’t looking for that, at this moment, anyway.”

The White House has said Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops, as well as local militias, ultimately must push the extremists out of Iraq. Obama has ordered about 1,600 U.S. military advisors to Iraq since June but has vowed not to send any U.S. ground troops into the conflict.

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U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft have launched at least 160 airstrikes in northern Iraq since Aug. 8, but the missions have been devoted to protecting religious refugees and two major dams threatened by Islamic State, not a ground offensive to retake territory. U.S. strategy calls for aerial bombardments to support local ground troops, including Sunni tribes that do not join forces with the militant group.

“Ultimately to destroy ISIL we do need to have a force, an anvil against which they will be pushed — ideally Sunni forces,” said Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” using one of several abbreviations for Islamic State.

Kerry and other American officials faced major challenges finding partners as they fanned out across the Middle East last week. Ten Arab governments agreed in principle that Islamic State should be destroyed, but did not commit in public to specific actions.

Key allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey avoided detailing what help they might provide beyond humanitarian assistance. They and the United Arab Emirates have at least a limited capability to fly bombing missions.

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The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has said in recent days that it would welcome U.S. airstrikes against militants in Syria as long as the government in Damascus is made aware of incoming U.S. warplanes and drones to avoid advertently shooting one down.

Kerry said the Pentagon will not directly coordinate airstrikes in Syria with Assad’s government. But, Kerry added, “we will certainly want to de-conflict and make certain that they’re not about to do something that they might regret even more seriously.”

Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to step down and condemned what the U.S. says is his government’s use of poison gas and other tactics in the country’s long-running civil war.


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