, PARIS, September 15 – The world’s top diplomats pledged Monday to support Iraq in its fight against Islamic State militants by “any means necessary”, including “appropriate military assistance”, as leaders stressed the urgency of the crisis.
Representatives from around 30 countries and international organisations, including the United States, Russia and China, gathered in Paris as the brutal beheading over the weekend of a third Western hostage focussed participants’ minds.
The pledge came as US Secretary of State John Kerry stepped up efforts to forge a broad anti-jihadist coalition.
In a joint statement issued after the talks, diplomats vowed to support Baghdad “by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance, in line with the needs expressed by the Iraqi authorities, in accordance with international law and without jeopardising civilian security.”
They stressed IS extremists were “a threat not only to Iraq but also to the entire international community” and underscored the “urgent need” to remove them from Iraq, where they control some 40 percent of its territory.
However, the final statement made no mention of Syria, where the extremists hold a quarter of the country and where the regime of Bashar al Assad still had friends around the Paris conference table, including Russia.
Opening the conference, French President Francois Hollande emphasised there was “no time to lose” in the fight against the jihadists.
“The fight of the Iraqis against terrorism is our fight as well,” Hollande stressed, urging “clear, loyal and strong” global support for Baghdad.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum also stressed the urgency of the crisis, saying there was a risk the militants could overrun more countries in the region.
“We are still asking for regular aerial operations against terrorist sites. We have to pursue them wherever they are. We need to dry up their sources of finance,” added the Iraqi leader.
The international community is scrambling to contain the IS jihadists — who have rampaged across Iraq and Syria and could number as many as 31,500 fighters, according to the CIA.
As if to underscore the urgency of the campaign, France’s defence minister announced just hours ahead of the conference it was joining Britain in carrying out reconnaissance flights in support of the US air campaign against the jihadists.
Shortly afterwards, two French Rafale fighter jets took off from the Al-Dhafra base in the United Arab Emirates, an AFP correspondent reported.
– All bases covered –
The Paris conference was one of a series of diplomatic gatherings in the run-up to a United Nations General Assembly later this week.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said meetings would come “thick and fast” in the coming days and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius said there would soon be a conference on Islamic State funding organised by Bahrain.
Kerry has been criss-crossing the region in a bid to build as broad a coalition as possible and said over the weekend that “all bases were covered” in terms of implementing US President Barack Obama’s strategy to destroy the jihadists.
Obama’s plan includes air strikes in Syria and expanded operations in Iraq, where US aircraft have carried out more than 160 strikes since early August.
The US leader also foresees training “moderate” Syrian rebels to take on IS and to reconstitute the Iraqi army, parts of which fled an IS blitzkrieg across northern and western Iraq.
While there was no mention of Syria in the final statement, Hollande said the international community “needs to find a durable solution in the place where the (IS) movement was born. In Syria.”
“The chaos is benefiting the terrorists. We therefore need to support those who can negotiate and make the required compromises to secure the future of Syria,” said Hollande.
“They are the forces of the democratic opposition. They need to be backed by all means,” added the president.
The coalition received a boost when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged to deploy 600 troops to the United Arab Emirates, a regional Washington ally.
Ten Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, are among the countries backing the coalition.
Speaking in Paris, a US official said the number of countries signing on was “going up almost every hour”, from Europe and the Middle East right across to Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
– ‘Dirty hands’ –
However, Iran, which was not invited to the conference, said it had rejected US overtures to help in the fight against the militants.
“Right from the start, the United States asked through its ambassador in Iraq whether we could cooperate,” supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement on his official website.
“I said no, because they have dirty hands,” said Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in Iran.
He accused Washington of seeking a “pretext to do in Iraq and Syria what it already does in Pakistan — bomb anywhere without authorisation.”
The United States insisted Monday that it was opposed to military cooperation with Iran, but was open to further talks.
The gruesome beheading of British aid worker David Haines increased the urgency of the Paris talks.
Haines was the third Western hostage to be beheaded by the militants in less than a month. IS released a video Saturday showing his killing and issued a death threat against another British captive, Alan Henning.