PARIS (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is doubling down on its strategy to fight the extremists, insisting on staying the course it set last year despite the radical group’s recent conquests on both sides of the border between Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pressed his case Tuesday for more support from the 25 countries in the coalition at a one-day Paris conference on fighting the militant group, organized within weeks of the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra.
The coalition has mustered a mix of airstrikes, intelligence sharing and assistance for Iraqi ground operations against the extremists. Al-Abadi said more was needed – his country reeling after troops pulled out of Ramadi without a fight and abandoned U.S.-supplied tanks and weapons.
“We will redouble our efforts,” said Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who was leading the delegation after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry broke his leg in a cycling accident in eastern France over the weekend. IS, Blinken said, “stands for nothing and depends on people who will fall for anything.”
But Tuesday’s conference offered no strategy beyond that which has yet to bear fruit, and none had been expected. A member of the main Western-backed Syrian Coalition, Hadi al-Bahra, criticized the plan, saying the U.S. was avoiding targeting the Assad government and making it easier for Islamic State’s takeover.
Blinken, who like the others focused primarily on Iraq on Tuesday, said the U.S. would make it easier for Iraq to obtain new weapons, after al-Abadi said the sanctions-hit countries of Iran and Russia were potentially important arms suppliers.
Blinken also said the U.S. would send anti-tank rockets to Iraqi forces to use against the armored suicide truck bombs that have devastated and terrified Iraqi forces — a plan in place well before the fall of Ramadi.
“Armament and ammunition, we haven’t seen much. Almost none. We’re relying on ourselves, but fighting is very hard this way,” al-Abadi said Tuesday before the conference.
Iran and Russia are not part of the U.S.-led coalition and they did not attend Tuesday’s conference, nor was there a representative from Syria. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Iraq’s problems wouldn’t end until Syria’s government changes.
“Stabilization of Iraq cannot be achieved if there is not a political transition in Syria,” he said. Just as important is political reconciliation within Iraq, notably between the Shiite-dominated government and disaffected Sunnis, who may not sympathize with IS but who have little love for the country’s leadership.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the coalition is “under no illusion that a victory by military means will be easy and also we know that winning peace will be difficult.”
“That’s why we talked today not just about the necessary military means, but also about what’s needed to bring stability to the areas that have been freed from ISIS troops,” he said, using another acronym for IS.
Al-Abadi said his government was making progress, although a measure to increase the Sunni presence in Iraq’s security forces has stalled in the legislature.
Acknowledging the loss of Ramadi, al-Abadi said Iraq’s military needs more intelligence and more action from international allies. Within a week of the Iraqi city’s fall to IS, the extremists captured the historic Syrian city of Palmyra.
More than 4,100 airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have failed to stem the gains by IS radicals.
Al-Abadi said the flow of foreign fighters across the border into Iraq hasn’t slowed, and the majority of the radical Sunni group is now foreign. Less than a year ago, he said, it was 60 percent Iraqi.
“They have brought hundreds of new fighters, foreign fighters, well trained, well-armed,” al-Abadi told a small group of journalists before the meeting. “This is a transnational organization. We need all the support of the world, the intelligence of the world, and we are not getting it.”
Officials in many Western countries who are part of the coalition have struggled to stop the flow of jihadi fighters from their territories to IS-controlled areas. Separately on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted that authorities have detected fewer than half of jihadis who left France for Syria before departure.
“As we know, our coalition has been together now for a little less than nine months. In that time, the progress we have made should give us confidence, but we have much too far to go to relax our sense of urgency,” Kerry said in a call to the conference, according to excerpts released by the State Department.
Blinken said the IS controls 25 percent less territory in Iraq since the coalition work began; but the group has made enormous gains in Syria, where by some estimates it now controls half the territory.
As for the fight on the ground, both American and other officials insisted the alternatives are limited and that Iraqi forces must themselves step up.
Al-Abadi said he is investigating why commanders in Ramadi ordered troops to pull back without fighting IS extremists.
Iraqi forces outnumbered their opposition but fled the city without fighting, leaving behind large numbers of U.S.-supplied vehicles, including several tanks. This repeats a pattern in which defeated Iraq security forces have, over the past year, left behind U.S.-supplied military equipment, prompting the U.S. to destroy them in subsequent airstrikes against IS forces.
“The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” was the blunt assessment from U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Sunday.
Al-Abadi disagreed, saying Iraqi soldiers seemed unaware of what they were up against, suggesting that a lack of intelligence from the coalition played a role in losing the city.
“Iraqi forces are prepared to fight,” he said. “If you don’t have enough intelligence, if you don’t have enough from airplanes seeing what’s happening in advance, how can you react?”
Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn in Cairo, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, contributed to this report.
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