BAGHDAD (AFP) – French President Francois Hollande pledged “support and solidarity” for Iraq’s new government during a visit to Baghdad on Friday, as global efforts to defeat extremist fighters intensified.
It was the highest-profile visit to Iraq since militants led by the Islamic State (IS) group overran large parts of the country in June and sparked international concern over an expanding militant threat.
Hollande touched down hours after Washington secured the support of 10 Arab states to help stamp out IS, which the CIA said Thursday had up to around 30,000 fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
The United States began a campaign of air strikes in Iraq after pulling its troops out of the country in 2011, and President Barack Obama vowed this week to expand operations, while the Pentagon announced that combat aircraft would soon start flying out of a base in the country’s north.
Obama is seeking to build a broad coalition to defeat IS, which has declared a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria, attacked religious minorities, posted videos of gruesome beheadings on the Internet and even vowed to take the fight to the West.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum shakes hands with his French counterpart President Francois Hollande during their joint news conference in Baghdad on September 12. Hollande extended his country’s “support and solidarity” to Iraq’s new government as he began asingle-day visit to the war-torn country as part of international efforts to defeat extremists – AFP
France has said it is prepared to take part in airstrikes against the militants in Iraq “if necessary”, and hosts an international conference on Iraq on Monday.
“It is an honour to be the first head of state here since this government was formed,” Hollande said after meeting Iraqi President Fuad Masum, assuring him “of France’s support and solidarity”.
At a meeting in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, 10 Arab states including Saudi Arabia “agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight” against IS, said a statement after a meeting Thursday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Arab counterparts.
Along with the Saudis, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are Arab parties to the coalition agreement.
The fight would include “stopping the flow of foreign fighters through neighbouring countries, countering financing of (IS) and other violent extremists, repudiating their hateful ideology, ending impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice.”
It would also include humanitarian relief.
France has pledged to supply arms – as have the United States, Britain – to the autonomous Kurdish government, whose peshmerga forces play a key role in attempts to recapture the vast swathes of land IS seized in the past three months.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was in Iraq with Hollande, said on Wednesday that France was prepared to take part in US-led airstrikes against the militants in Iraq “if necessary” but has stressed that Syria was a different situation.
Kerry heads to Ankara on Friday after Turkey refused to allow its air bases to be used in the campaign or to take part in combat.
IS now has about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the Central Intelligence Agency said, much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000.
“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence,” CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said.
The vastly higher estimate underscored the scale of the challenge after Obama vowed to expand an offensive against the extremists, a plan which foresees airstrikes against IS in Syria, expanded attacks in Iraq and new support for Baghdad’s forces.
Iraq’s new unity government and the Syrian opposition welcomed Obama’s plan against IS, Syria’s regime and powerful ally Russia condemned it.
“Any action of any kind without the consent of the Syrian government would be an attack on Syria,” National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar said.
Moscow said unilateral action would be a “crude violation” of international law.
Kerry retorted that he was “really rather surprised that Russia would dare to assert any notion of international law after what has happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine”.
Obama has said he was sending another 475 military personnel to help train Iraqi forces, but stressed the campaign would not be a repeat of the exhausting ground wars fought by US troops in the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.