Last updated: 12 September, 2014

France’s Hollande in Iraq to support new government

France’s president travelled to war-torn Iraq and Washington’s top diplomat to neighbouring Turkey Friday, ramping up efforts to address what they now see as the global threat posed by jihadists.

Francois Hollande was the first head of state to visit Iraq since jihadist-led militants seized large parts of it in June, and he said France is ready to step up its military involvement.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry was in neighbouring Turkey, which many observers see as holding one of the keys to turning the tide on the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group’s expansion in Iraq and Syria.

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 Washington is trying to put together against jihadists.

“I am comfortable that it would be a broad-based coalition with Arab nations, European nations, the United States and others,” Kerry told reporters in Ankara.

He held a two-hour meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but a Turkish official told AFP Ankara’s hands were tied because of 49 Turks, including children and diplomats, kidnapped by militants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

Turkey’s border is thought to be the main entry point for the thousands of foreign fighters, including from Europe and North America, who are of particular concern to the West.

The conflict in Syria has killed around 200,000 people in three and half years and allowed the emergence of the most violent and powerful group in modern jihad.

The 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.

– Over 150 US strikes –

That sparked what has been decried as a belated reaction from world powers, with US President Barack Obama earlier this week outlining a strategy to stamp out the group.

The CIA on Thursday 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, according to the US military.

On a high-profile visit to Iraq Friday, Hollande said France is ready to step up military involvement but would not go into the specifics.

“I came here to Baghdad to state France’s availability in providing even more military assistance to Iraq,” he said in Baghdad after meeting Iraq’s new prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi.

He voiced his country’s full support to the new government, whose much-delayed formation was an obstacle to effectively tackling a jihadist onslaught, whose speed and scope shocked the world.

Hollande is trying to take a lead role in responding to the crisis and is hosting a conference on Iraq in Paris on Monday.

The previous day in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Kerry secured the backing of 10 Arab states for a global push to weaken IS, whose appeal has drawn volunteers from around the world.

But Kerry’s invitation did not extend to Iran.

“It would not be appropriate given the many other issues… with respect to their engagement in Syria and elsewhere,” he said.

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.

– Major humanitarian crisis –

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 was careful to stress he would not send ground forces into combat.

Efforts also focus on tackling what is considered the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, which has created more three million Syrian refugees and displaced up to 1.8 million in Iraq, with the continued conflict taking a daily toll.

Hollande, who flew to Iraq with 15 tonnes of aid on his plane, stopped in Arbil to visit displaced Christians in a camp.

France was quick to offer taking displaced Christians in but Hollande said “the first duty we have is to fight against terrorism, it is not to give in to terrorism by drawing people” out of their homeland.

Germany, which has ruled out taking part in air strikes against IS, on Friday outlawed providing active support to IS, warning that the group poses a threat to Europe.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the immediate ban covered the recruitment, including on the Internet, of jihadist fighters, the use of IS symbols and social media propaganda.