BAGHDAD—The United States pledged Wednesday to stand by Iraq as its new leaders pleaded for help in facing down a rampant, deadly insurgency. The assurances by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a daylong visit to Baghdad came as President Barack Obama prepared to outline his strategy for defeating the Islamic State militant group that has overrun wide swaths of northern Iraq and Syria.
The increased devotion to Iraq and its spiraling security problems means Obama likely will spend the remaining two years of his presidency focused on a nation he campaigned to largely leave in the rear-view mirror after withdrawing American troops in 2011.
“This is a fight that the Iraqi people must win, but it’s also a fight that the rest of the world needs to win with them,” Kerry told reporters at the close of a daylong visit to Baghdad, the first high-level meeting between the U.S. and new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “And it’s a fight the United States and the rest of the world need to support every single step of the way.”
A coalition of nearly 40 nations already has committed to contribute to what Kerry predicted will be a worldwide fight to defeat the Islamic State, which has surpassed even al-Qaida in its ruthlessness to impose extremist laws in a caliphate it wants to carve out of the Mideast. But much of the world—and most notably Iraq—was watching to see what Obama would offer in a speech Wednesday night.
Al-Abadi, who was sworn into office just days ago, told Kerry that the U.S. and other foreign allies must help Iraq stem the threat that is pouring in the country from Syria, where the Islamic State has established a safe haven.
“Of course, our role is to defend our country, but the international community is responsible to protect Iraq and protect Iraqis in the whole region,” al-Abadi said. “What’s happening in Syria is coming across to Iraq. We cannot cross that border. It’s an international border, but there is a role for the international community, for the United Nations to do that role … to act immediately to stop the spread of this cancer.”
Brandishing Obama’s plans, Kerry will head to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State—and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. In one noteworthy example, Saudi leaders invited Iraqi diplomats to the conference—a significant step forward for two nations that have been at odds over sectarian tensions and political tussles for years.
But Kerry said the Mideast partners could contribute in a number of ways, from curbing private financial aid and foreign fighters flowing to the insurgency, to sending humanitarian aid to victims, to pushing back against extremist views that the insurgents espouse to lure recruits.
It’s also expected that the region’s leaders will provide military training and support for security forces that are on the front lines against the Islamic State. The U.S. already has launched more than 150 airstrikes against militants in Iraq over the past month, and has sent military advisers and millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, including an additional $48 million announced Wednesday, to get Iraqi forces and civilians back on their feet.
Additionally, a conference set for Monday in Paris will host officials from the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China to discuss how to stabilize Iraq. Other nations may also attend, including, potentially, Iran, with whom the U.S. will not partner on military missions.
France on Wednesday offered to join in airstrikes against extremists fighters in Iraq if needed.
As it corrals the international coalition, the U.S. must now keep a sharp eye on al-Abadi and his new government to make sure Baghdad lives up to its promises to include more of Iraq’s minority Sunnis and Kurds in the country’s power structures. If that fails, the coalition could fall apart as its members see that Iraq is doing little to curb sectarian tensions that have fueled the Islamic State.
Kerry said he was more encouraged than ever that Iraq would stick to its commitments to cede more control of security, political power and government jobs to Sunnis in local governances in the country’s north and western regions. He acknowledged the reforms may not happen in the next days or weeks, but cited “a determination on their part to try to make it work.”
“It’s full speed ahead,” he said.
Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.