PARIS — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says he won’t shut the door on the possibility of working with Iran against a common enemy in the Islamic State militant group, but the two nations won’t co-ordinate on military action.
Kerry also ruled out co-ordinating with the Syrian government, although he vaguely described ways to communicate to avoid mistakes should the U.S. and its allies begin bombing the Sunni extremist group’s safe haven there.
He spoke to a small group of reporters Monday after international diplomats met in Paris, pledging to fight the Islamic State group “by any means necessary.”
Neither Iran nor Syria, which together share most of Iraq’s borders, were invited to the international conference, which opened as a pair of French reconnaissance jets took off over Iraqi skies.
During the meeting, Iraq asked allies to thwart the extremists wherever they find sanctuary.
“We are asking for airborne operations to be continued regularly against terrorist sites. We must not allow them to set up sanctuaries. We must pursue them wherever they are. We must cut off their financing. We must bring them to justice and we must stop the fighters in neighbouring countries from joining them,” President Fouad Massoum said.
With memories of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq still raw, the U.S. has so far been alone in carrying out airstrikes and no country has offered ground troops, but Iraq on Monday won a declaration by the conference’s 24 participant nations to help fight the militants “by any means necessary, including military assistance.” An American official said Sunday several Arab countries had offered to conduct airstrikes, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
A French diplomat, speaking only on condition of anonymity after the conference because of protocol, said Paris was awaiting a “formal request” from Baghdad about possible French airstrikes.
“The threat is global and the response must be global,” French President Francois Hollande said, opening the diplomatic conference intended to come up with an international strategy against the group. “There is no time to lose.”
The killing of David Haines, a British aid worker held hostage by the militants, added urgency to the calls for a coherent strategy against the brutal and well-organized Sunni group, which is a magnet for Muslim extremists from all over the world. The group rakes in more than $3 million a day from oil smuggling, human trafficking, theft and extortion, according to U.S. intelligence officials and private experts.
Massoum called for a co-ordinated military and humanitarian approach, as well as regular strikes against territory in the hands of the extremists and the elimination of their funding. Details of the military options have not been made public.
After the conference ended, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met privately with Massoum at the Iraqi Embassy in Paris, telling him that the drive for an inclusive Iraq government had been key to Monday’s pledges.
“So I hope you feel that the push and the risk was worth it,” Kerry said.
“We are beginning to feel it,” Massoum said through a translator.
Fighters with the Islamic State group, including many Iraqis, swept in from Syria and overwhelmed the Iraqi military in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, capitalizing on long-standing grievances against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
When the militants arrived in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the U.S.-trained military crumbled and the militants seized tanks, missile launchers and ammunition, steamrolling across northern Iraq. The CIA estimates the Sunni militant group has access to between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Muslim-majority countries are considered vital to any operation to prevent the militants from gaining more territory in Iraq and Syria. Western officials have made clear they consider Syrian President Bashar Assad part of the problem, and U.S. officials opposed France’s attempt to invite Iran, a Shiite nation, to the conference in Paris.
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on Iranian state television, said his government privately refused American requests for co-operation against the Islamic State group, warning that another U.S. incursion would result “in the same problems they faced in Iraq in the past 10 years.”
But Kerry said the U.S. and Iran have discussed whether there was any way they could work together against IS.
“I’m just going to hold open the possibility always of having a discussion that has the possibility of being constructive,” Kerry said.
A French intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, last week told The Associated Press that “it would please a certain number of countries for Iran to step in to establish order” in Syria. He said that was the view of some Western powers.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Monday that Syria and Iran are “natural allies” in the fight against the extremists, and therefore must be engaged, according to Russian news agencies.
“The extremists are trying to use any disagreements in our positions to tear apart the united front of states acting against them,” he said.
Iraq’s president, who has said he regretted Iran’s absence, appeared ambivalent about Arab participation, saying his country needed the support of its neighbours — but not necessarily their fighter jets or soldiers.
Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have some of the region’s best-equipped militaries, and they could theoretically provide air support to a broader international coalition. U.S. officials say the Emirates and Egypt were behind airstrikes against Islamic-backed militants in Libya last month.
Asked about those countries in an AP interview Sunday, Massoum said: “It is not necessary that they participate in air strikes; what is important is that they participate in the decisions of this conference.”
Speaking in his first interview since becoming Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi told state-run al-Iraqiyya in comments aired Sunday that he had given his approval to France to use Iraqi airspace and said all such authorizations would have to come from Baghdad.
Two French fighter planes carried out France’s first reconnaissance missions over Iraq on Monday, allowing for the collection of digital images and video at high-speeds, the French Defence Ministry said in a statement. It said similar missions could continue in the coming days.
“This was about French military forces acquiring intelligence about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) and to reinforce our ability to carry out an independent analysis of the situation,” the statement said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would continue offering logistical help to U.S. forces and that counterterrorism efforts will increase, describing the Islamic State group as a “massive” security threat. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the threat goes beyond just the recent killings.
“This group poses even more of a danger as it risks exporting terrorists to our countries,” he said in his outgoing speech as NATO’s top civilian official. “It also controls energy assets. And it is pouring oil on the fire of sectarianism already burning across the Middle East and North Africa.”