CAIRO, September 13 – Secretary of State John Kerry arrived Saturday in Cairo on the latest leg of a regional tour to forge a coalition in the US-led war on jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
Egypt’s formidable army is unlikely to take part in military action against the Islamic State jihadists (IS), but it has closely cooperated with America on counter-terrorism.
The United States says it is “at war” with IS and has named John Allen, a hawkish former commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, to coordinate its campaign against the movement that has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria.
Kerry, who flew in to Cairo from Ankara, is scheduled to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi during his one-day visit.
Cairo’s involvement in the coalition may help to soothe its relations with Washington, after the United States suspended — then restored — military aid following the army’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Morsi’s successor, the former army chief Sisi, is fighting Islamist militants in the restive Sinai Peninsula who have expressed support for the Islamic State.
Having secured the backing of 10 Arab nations this week, Washington is seeking a stamp of approval for its campaign from Egypt and its religious institutions, which include the prestigious Al-Azhar Sunni Muslim institute.
“One of the issues is to have their religious institutions to speak out against ISIL, to talk about it in Fridays sermons,” said a US official travelling with Kerry, using another acronym for IS.
“They (the Egyptians) are concerned about foreign fighters, an issue that has aggravated their domestic terrorism.”
Washington has said it is “at war” with IS, although Kerry has been reluctant to use the term, speaking instead of a “major counter-terrorism operation”.
“The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way that we are at war with Al-Qaeda and its Al-Qaeda affiliates all around the globe,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
On Friday, French President Francois Hollande travelled to war-torn Iraq while Kerry was in neighbouring Turkey, to address the threat posed by the jihadists.
Hollande, first head of state to visit Iraq since the militants seized large parts of the country in June, said France was ready to step up its military involvement.
The French leader is trying to take a lead role in responding to the crisis and will host a conference on Iraq in Paris on Monday.
In Ankara, Kerry spoke of “a broad-based coalition with Arab nations, European nations, the United States and others”.
Turkey is a fellow NATO member but has so far refused to open its air bases to US forces and other members of the coalition.
A Turkish official told AFP that Ankara’s hands were tied because of the fate of 49 Turks, including children and diplomats, kidnapped by militants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June.
In Jeddah on Thursday, Kerry secured the backing of 10 Arab states for the push to weaken IS, whose appeal has drawn volunteers from around the world.
But Washington has insisted it will not work with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose bloody three-and-a-half year conflict has allowed the emergence of IS, the most violent and powerful group in modern jihad.
IS led a major offensive in Iraq that began on June 9 and swept through the country’s Sunni Arab heartland, where many are angry and alienated by what they see as the sectarian policies of the Shiite-dominated government.
IS declared a “caliphate” straddling both countries, attacked minorities, posted videos of beheadings online and vowed to take the fight to the West.
That sparked what has been decried as a belated reaction from world powers, with US President Barack Obama this week outlining a strategy to stamp out the group.
Over 150 US strikes
The CIA put the number of fighters in IS ranks at 20,000 to 31,500 in Iraq and Syria, up to three times the previous estimate.
US aircraft have carried out more than 150 strikes in Iraq since early August, the latest coming on Friday in the area of the country’s largest dam, north of Mosul, in which two IS vehicles were destroyed.
Washington plans to help revamp the Iraqi army, which withered under the IS-led onslaught in June, and has announced it would fly combat aircraft from an airbase in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
Three years after the end of the nearly nine-year US military presence in Iraq, which some observers say birthed what is now IS, Obama has been careful to stress to the war-weary American public that he would not send ground forces into combat.