Iraq's divide could strain anti-IS coalition: US

Dan De Luce
1 / 4

An Iraqi Shiite fighter and member of the Popular Mobilisation units supporting government forces in the battle against Islamic State, sits in a vehicle in the village of Albu Ajil, east of the city of Tikrit, on March 8, 2015

An Iraqi Shiite fighter and member of the Popular Mobilisation units supporting government forces in the battle against Islamic State, sits in a vehicle in the village of Albu Ajil, east of the city of Tikrit, on March 8, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

Manama (AFP) - The international coalition fighting Islamic State extremists could be jeopardised if the Baghdad government fails to bridge Iraq's sectarian divide, the US military's top officer warned Monday.

Iraq's political leaders have yet to deliver on promises to reach out to the Sunni population and have raised concerns in the region by forging closer ties to Shiite-led Iran, General Martin Dempsey said after spending several hours in Baghdad.

For the longer term, the solidarity of the anti-IS coalition -- which includes Sunni Arab states -- could be put at risk, Dempsey told reporters in Manama.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called on Monday for the creation of a unified Arab force to battle Islamic extremist groups.

"There is an urgent need for the creation of a multi-purpose common Arab military force... able to intervene rapidly to fight terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups," he said.

Dempsey, for his part, said: "I come away a bit concerned that it's going to be difficult to sustain the coalition for the rest of the challenge -- which is trans-regional –- unless the government of Iraq can actually form that national unity platform to which they committed."

With the IS group "under pressure in almost every corner of Iraq," the "military aspect" of the campaign is on course and "going fine," said the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But an overriding goal for Washington and other coalition members was to ensure that Iraq's Shiite-led authorities also upheld the rights of its Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, he said.

Dempsey also had concerns about competence in the Iraqi army.

"Militarily I was clear that there are still some leaders who need to be replaced," he said.

"There is still a shortage of recruits. There are still instances where those recruits are not being paid on time or equipped properly."

Flying over Baghdad by helicopter earlier, Dempsey noted Shiite militia banners flying over many buildings, describing "the plethora of flags, only one of which happens to be the Iraqi flag".

- Concerns about Iran influence -

He said Sunni Arab countries in the region, several of which are taking part in air strikes in Syria, were anxious about Iran's influence in Iraq.

Iran's role has taken on new importance in recent days as Shiite militia armed and trained by Tehran are playing a high-profile role in a major offensive on IS in Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

In a joint news conference with Dempsey in Baghdad, Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obaidi made no apologies for enlisting military aid from Iran.

"We are in a state of war and we look to our friends to help us in this confrontation," Obaidi said.

In his talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Obaidi, Dempsey said he acknowledged their "instinct" to look for assistance from any country ready to provide it.

But he also stressed that "they should also be aware of the challenge of holding together the... coalition," Dempsey said.

The IS group has sought to exploit the grievances of alienated Sunnis in Iraq, and Dempsey has urged Baghdad to tackle what he calls the "underlying" sectarian issue.

The general, who spent several tours in Iraq during the 2003-2011 US occupation, said it was unclear whether Iraq's links to Iran were only about battling the IS or part of a broader agenda.

"What I'm trying to sort out is the degree to which the near term embrace of the assistance they're receiving from Iran is a reaction to the existential threat (from IS) or whether it's something longer-term," he said.

"And by the way, it could be longer-term and not necessarily negative."

Throughout his trip to the region, which included talks with leaders in Bahrain and with his French counterpart aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf, Dempsey said he stressed the importance of keeping intact the global coalition against IS.

"I reminded everyone -- the Bahrainis, the French and the Iraqis -- that fundamental to the success of the campaign is the solidarity of the coalition, and anything that could threaten that solidarity we really need to be alert to," he said.