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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Baghdad (AFP) — Washington kickstarted its efforts to form a broad coalition against jihadists in Iraq and Syria Tuesday with Secretary of State John Kerry headed to the region to rally U.S. allies.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is to host talks on Thursday between Kerry and ministers from 10 Arab states plus Turkey on joint action against the Islamic State group.

Kerry’s arrival in the region on Wednesday will coincide with a keenly awaited speech by President Barack Obama in which he has promised to set out a strategy to defeat the jihadists who have unleashed a wave of atrocities that have shocked the world.

Washington has been buoyed in its diplomatic offensive by the formation of a new government in Baghdad that it hopes will be more acceptable to both Iraq’s disenchanted Sunni Arab minority and Sunni governments around the region.

The Iraqi army’s campaign to claw back the territory it lost in the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June — and U.S. efforts to engage Sunni governments in the fightback — have been complicated by the sectarian politics of the region.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states had deeply strained relations with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, with each side blaming the other for the advance of the jihadists.

But 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” in efforts to woo the Sunni Arab minority away from IS after the divisive rule of Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki.

– ‘Broadest possible coalition’ –

The talks in the Saudi port city of Jeddah on Thursday will be attended by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the six Gulf Arab states as well as Iraq.

Kerry has pledged to build “the broadest possible coalition of partners around the globe to confront, degrade and ultimately defeat (IS).”

“Almost every single country has a role to play in eliminating the (IS) threat and the evil that it represents,” the U.S. top diplomat said.

Notable by their absence from Jeddah will be the Syrian government — facing a three and a half year uprising backed by many of the participants — and its regional ally Iran.

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

Damascus views itself as a key bulwark against the jihadists, but Washington has ruled out any cooperation for fear of alienating Syria’s Sunni majority who largely support the uprising.

The Syrian media mocked the U.S. decision to exclude Damascus from the anti-IS coalition.

“Western and regional governments are excluding the nations that really want to fight terrorism,” the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said.

Instead, Washington was building a coalition that included nations that “support terrorism financially, militarily and logistically,” it said.

It was alluding to neighbouring Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, whose arms deliveries to the rebels, some of which have wound up in IS hands, have made them bugbears of the regime.

Damascus fears efforts to tackle IS will involve air strikes on its territory without its permission.

Washington launched air strikes against jihadist targets in Iraq on August 8 and has since carried out nearly 150 sorties.

Obama has so far held back from authorising strikes on IS in Syria but he has promised a comprehensive strategy against the group on both sides of the border in the policy speech he is to deliver on Wednesday.

The new U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, was expected in Damascus on Tuesday for his visit since taking over the post in July.

– Iran welcomes Iraq govt –

Shiite 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 IS.

“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 — it remains dominated by politicians from Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority, the Kurds hold fewer ministries than in the previous cabinet and the Sunni Arabs relatively minor ones.

The divisive Maliki becomes one of three vice presidents, alongside a Sunni Arab — former parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi — and a secular Shiite — ex-premier Iyad Allawi.

Fuad Masum, a Kurd, became president in July.

Abadi also put off filling the key interior and defence portfolios, promising to name the two ministers who will take charge of the security forces’ fightback against the jihadists within the next week.

The commander of one of the Shiite militias that have played a growing military role alongside the army has sought the interior ministry post.

Any such appointment would risk further alienating the Sunni Arab minority given the Shiite militias’ brutal history in the sectarian bloodshed that gripped Iraq in 2006 to 2008.

AFP Photo/Peter Parks

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