As Kerry visits Iraq, Sadr warns of cooperation with "occupiers"

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US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Queen Alia Airport on September 10, 2014 in Amman. (Photo: AFP - Brendan Smialowski)

Published Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Updated at 5:10 pm (GMT +3):Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of a powerful movement in Iraq, said on Wednesday during a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Iraq should not cooperate with "occupiers."

"We wish for Iraq to cooperate with the neighboring countries and its allies, but not with the occupiers," said Sadr, whose opinions hold sway over tens of thousands of militants.

Kerry, who arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday in a bid to build a coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, met Iraq's new Prime Minister Haider Abadi and said he was impressed by the premier's plans to rebuild the Iraqi military and push broad political reforms.

Speaking in front of reporters, Kerry told Abadi he was "encouraged" by the premier's plans for the "reconstituting" of the military and "your commitment to broad reforms that are necessary in Iraq to bring every segment of Iraqi society to the table."

Abadi called for the international community to help Iraq fight ISIS, urging them "to act immediately to stop the spread of this cancer."

"Of course our role is to defend our country, but the international community is responsible for protecting Iraq and protecting Iraqis and the whole region," Abadi said at the close of his meeting with Kerry.

Abadi said there was "a role for the international community, for the United Nations" in tackling the threat of ISIS in neighboring Syria.

During Kerry's visit, three car bombs exploded in a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, killing 19 people and wounding at least 52 others, officials said.

They said a suicide car bombing followed by a car bomb struck near a police checkpoint in a crowded area of eastern Baghdad.

Kerry due in Saudi Arabia "to battle extremism"

Kerry will meet with ministers from 10 Arab States and Turkey in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to hold talks on joint action against ISIS.

The talks coincide with an address from President Barack Obama at the White House, where he will outline the US’ strategy to confront ISIS and address criticism that he has been slow to respond to a wave of atrocities that has shocked the world.

Britain also announced on Tuesday that it will ship $2.6 million (two million euros) worth of weapons to Kurdish forces in Iraq, to help roll back the militants' lightning advances.

Kerry's arrival in the region on Wednesday comes as Washington hailed the formation of the new government in Baghdad.

Iraq's campaign to claw back territory it lost in the north and west of Baghdad in June, and US efforts to engage neighboring governments in the fightback, have been complicated by regional politics.

Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf Arab states have had deeply strained relations with the government in Baghdad, with each side blaming the other for the jihadists' gains.

But their foreign ministers will be among those attending Thursday's talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah, along with top diplomats from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq itself.

They will address "terrorism in the region, extremist organizations behind it and means of fighting them," Saudi state media said.

The Arab League, which has stopped short of explicitly backing ongoing US air strikes against ISIS, also drummed up regional support for the fight.

Ahead of his visit, Kerry vowed to build "the broadest possible coalition of partners around the globe to confront, degrade and ultimately defeat (ISIS).”

"Almost every single country has a role to play in eliminating the (ISIS) threat and the evil that it represents," he said.

Notably absent from Jeddah will be Russia, the Syrian government – which has not been consulted over possible US airstrikes on its soil – and Iran.

ISIS has taken advantage of the conflict to seize a big chunk of northeastern Syria in fighting with government forces, rival rebel groups and Kurdish militia.

Damascus views itself as a bulwark against the militants, but Washington has ruled out any cooperation.

Washington launched airstrikes against jihadists in Iraq on August 8.

Obama is prepared to authorize air strikes in Syria against ISIS, The New York Times and the Washington Post reported late Tuesday.

An opinion poll published on Tuesday suggested Americans are hawkish towards ISIS, with nearly three-quarters favoring ongoing airstrikes against the group in Iraq while 65 percent would approve extending operations into Syria.

But critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

On Monday, a study by the London-based small-arms research organization Conflict Armament Research revealed that ISIS jihadists appear to be using US military issue arms and weapons supplied to the so-called moderate rebels in Syria by Saudi Arabia.

The report said the jihadists disposed of "significant quantities" of US-made small arms including M-16 assault rifles and included photos showing the markings "Property of US Govt."

It also found that anti-tank rockets used by ISIS in Syria were "identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella in 2013."

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that more strikes had been carried out over the previous two days near western Iraq's massive Haditha dam as part of operations against ISIS forces.

After months of wrangling, Iraq's new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi finally formed a government on Monday that Washington said had "the potential to unite all of Iraq's diverse communities."

Kerry described the new government as a "major milestone" after the divisive rule of Abadi's predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran – alongside the United States, the key outside power in Iraq – said it hoped the change of government in Baghdad would help turn the tide against ISIS.

"I hope that during your new mandate, complete calm will return to your country," President Hassan Rouhani said.

In reality, the new government does not constitute quite the sea-change hailed by Washington, as the divisive Maliki becomes one of three vice presidents.

In other developments, French President Francois Hollande will visit Iraq on Friday ahead of hosting a conference in Paris on security in the country next Monday, his office said.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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