Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, 2nd left, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed, 3rd left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, 4th left, meet with staff members on the terrace of the U.S. Chief of Mission Residence in Paris. (Brendan Smialowski / AP)
Crisis in Iraq
PARIS — The United States met Thursday with its top Sunni state allies in the Mideast to consider how to confront the region’s growing turmoil that has been spawned by a Sunni Muslim insurgency group.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant reaches beyond the two countries — Iraq and Syria — where it is currently based.
“The move of ISIL concerns every single country here,” Kerry said at the start of the meeting held at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris.
He said the talks with foreign ministers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also would touch on a “number of critical issues” — including negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program and the stalled peace effort between Israel and Palestinian authorities.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called the discussions “of immense importance for our countries.”
“I think with the cooperation between these countries we can affect, hopefully, the situation in a better way,” al-Faisal said.
Kerry also met earlier Thursday with the Sunni former prime minister of Lebanon.
ISIL’s roots are in Iraq, where for years it launched attacks at American forces, the Shiite-led government and Shiite pilgrims in an effort to destabilize the country after former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was overthrown and executed. It spread into neighboring Syria to join the Sunni movement to oust President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism. In recent months, it has ramped up its march of terror across western and northern Iraq, defeating government forces and overtaking several cities in Sunni-dominated regions.
It’s feared the insurgency will spark an outright civil war in Iraq — joining the ongoing three-year battle in Syria — if ISIL’s might is not curbed.
Kerry’s meeting with the Arab state diplomats lasted about two hours. Afterward, senior State Department officials said the Sunni diplomats repeated concerns about Iraq’s current Shiite-led government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with whom their states have had longstanding tensions. All sides agreed during the meeting that Iraq’s next government — which will begin to form after the new parliament is seated next week in Baghdad — must be more accepting of the country’s Sunni and Kurdish population. Sixty percent of Iraqis are Shiite.
The Arab diplomats did not commit to sending any military assistance to Baghdad to fight the Sunni insurgency, as the U.S. is doing. In Washington, the Pentagon said Thursday that four teams of Army special forces have arrived in Baghdad, bringing the number of American troops there to 90.
The U.S. special forces will be advising and assisting Iraqi counterterrorism forces to repel the insurgency. U.S. officials said they will be in operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq.
So far, President Obama has resisted demands for airstrikes against ISIL and other insurgent enclaves, but the administration has identified targets and reserves the right to pursue them if necessary.
The State Department officials briefed reporters who were traveling with Kerry on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks by name.
The Obama administration hopes that Iraq’s Sunni neighbors — notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia — will use their cross-border tribal networks to bolster the Sunni militias with financing or weapons.
But it’s not clear that Washington would even support that privately. The U.S. probably would want to vet the tribes before they received any money or arms, even from other nations, to ensure that the aid does not get passed along to ISIL or other extremist groups.
Kerry travels Friday to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to meet King Abdullah in what’s expected to be a continuation of the talks about the Iraq insurgency. While there, he’ll also see visiting Syrian opposition leader President Ahmad al-Jarba. It was not immediately clear why al-Jarba, a Sunni, was in Saudi Arabia.
Two other Sunni states in the Mideast, Qatar and Kuwait, were not at Thursday’s meeting. The U.S. Treasury Department believes money is being raised in Kuwait and Qatar for ISIL as well al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department says there is no evidence of Gulf governments themselves funding ISIL.