Hollande backs Iraq as world ramps up anti-IS efforts
President Francois Hollande said during a visit to Baghdad Friday that France is ready to step up military assistance for Iraq, as global efforts to defeat jihadist fighters intensified.
It was the highest-profile visit to Iraq since militants led by the Islamic State (IS) overran large parts of the country in June and sparked international concern over an expanding jihadist 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 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.
President Barack Obama vowed this week to expand operations, while the Pentagon announced 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 minorities, posted videos of gruesome beheadings online and even vowed to take the fight to the West.
France, which hosts an international conference on Iraq on Monday, said it is prepared to take part in air strikes against the militants in Iraq "if necessary".
"I came here to Baghdad to state France's availability in providing even more military assistance to Iraq," Hollande said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, whose cabinet was approved by parliament this week with key security posts unfilled.
Hollande said after meeting President Fuad Masum that "it is an honour to be the first head of state here since this government was formed," and assured him "of France's support and solidarity".
Ten Arab states including Saudi Arabia "agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight" against IS, they said after meeting in Jeddah on Thursday with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
- 'Hateful ideology' -
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, and Kerry said Friday the US would provide an additional $500 million in assistance for victims of the Syria conflict.
France has pledged to supply arms -- as have the United States and Britain -- to the autonomous Kurdish government, whose peshmerga forces play a key role in attempts to recapture the areas IS seized.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was in Iraq with Hollande, has said France was prepared to take part in US-led air strikes against the militants in Iraq "if necessary" but has stressed Syria was a different situation.
Kerry was in Ankara on Friday after Turkey refused to allow its air bases to be used in the campaign or to participate 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.
- Strong recruitment -
"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 air strikes 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, but 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 said 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".
Many countries are now unwilling to work with President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which carried out brutal crackdown on opponents, sparking a bloody civil.
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.
© 2014 AFP