JEDDAH/baghdad: Syrian rebels can help push back jihadists in Iraq, US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday as Washington unveiled plans to boost Syria’s opposition with $500m in arms and training.
The top US diplomat, who landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in the afternoon, also met the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia a day after hosting urgent talks in Paris with the Saudi, Jordanian and UAE foreign ministers on the widening crisis in Iraq and Syria.
King Abdullah has consistently called for greater US military support for the Syrian rebels, whom the Sunni Gulf kingdom has long backed.
The United States also confirmed yesterday it was flying armed drones over Baghdad to defend Americans, as Iraqi forces fought for a strategic university and launched air strikes in militant-held Tikrit.
Iraq’s top Shia cleric meanwhile urged the country’s leaders to unite, after Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki conceded political measures are needed to defeat the jihadist-led offensive that has killed more than 1,000 people and overrun major parts of five provinces.
In further fallout from the crisis, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region declared there was no going back on Kurdish self-rule in disputed territory, including ethnically divided northern oil city Kirkuk, now defended against the militants by Kurdish fighters.
International agencies also raised alarm bells over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town in recent days and 1.2 million displaced by unrest in Iraq this year.
Following several signals in recent weeks by US President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House said on Thursday it intends to “ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition”.
The request is part of a $1.5bn Regional Stabilisation Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbours Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees.
Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed the huge US boost to his forces, battling to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
“The situation is very grave and there are sectarian leaders ruling the country so we have to have greater efforts on the part of the US and regional powers to address the situation in Iraq,” Jarba said.
Kerry said “the moderate opposition in Syria... has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) ISIL’s presence... not just in Syria, but also in Iraq”.
“Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward.”
The Saudi king has also been an outspoken critic of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose Shia-led government has seen Sunni insurgents sweep up a huge swathe of territory, including second city Mosul, since June 9.
Riyadh accuses Maliki of excluding Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and has played down Western concerns that the insurgents are led by jihadists.
The US assistance would go to what the White House has called “appropriately vetted” members of the Syrian opposition.
Although the United States has provided some $2bn in humanitarian aid, Obama has so far shied clear of providing heavy weapons, fearful that they could fall into the hands of jihadists.