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Kerry Urges Mideast Leaders To Contain ISIS


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Secretary of State John Kerry is a ending week-long diplomatic trip through Europe and the Mideast. Secretary Kerry went from Baghdad to Erbil and then on to Brussels and Paris. He finally ended up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he warned that the Sunni Muslim group ISIS is a threat to the whole region, not just Iraq.

NPR's Jackie Northam has been traveling with Secretary Kerry. She joins us from the last stop on his journey in Shannon, Ireland. Jackie, thanks for being with us.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. Hi.

SIMON: What was the secretary looking for when he sat down with Mideast leaders?

NORTHAM: Well, most of his conversations focused on how to contain ISIS, the Sunni extremist group. You know, militants have shot across north and west Iraq over the past couple of week, overrunning towns and cities, and gobbling up territory and killing anyone who opposes them, particularly Shiites.

And during Secretary Kerry's visit, ISIS attacked a couple border crossings with Syria and Saudi Arabia, you know, and suddenly neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, look vulnerable to attack. So if anything, this helped Kerry make his argument that ISIS is not just a threat to Iraq but to the whole region. And he needs their help in trying to eliminate that threat.

SIMON: Jackie, how has Secretary Kerry delivered the message? As we've heard, U.S. military advisers are being sent. Some have already arrived.

NORTHAM: Right. I mean, 300 military advisers spread over parts of Iraq are not really going to solve anything militarily, especially not in the short term with a group as vicious and as determined as ISIS. And there were also reports the U.S. is now using drones in Iraq for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

But the Obama Administration believes that there is a political solution and that's why it's pushing the idea of a unity government in Iraq. It believes if the country had a government that represented all of Iraq's communities, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, then Isis wouldn't garner the support that it has. And local leaders of all stripes would rise up against it.

Kerry has worked hard to sell this idea of an inclusive government to Kurdish leaders and Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have predominantly Sunni governments. The problem is those states don't think an inclusive government can exist under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who's a Shiite. And they want him gone. And even Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is pressuring Maliki to go.

And the important backstory here is that the U.S. has also made it clear that it wants Maliki to step down. So it's got this plan may be all well and good and have the backing from many sides. But the big question is what happens if Maliki refuses to leave?

SIMON: It sounds like Iran, which had been supporting Maliki, might also be looking for alternatives. If he were to leave, one way or another, does that open the possibilities for other options?

NORTHAM: Well, I mean the big thing here is they want to stop - if they can get this sorted out politically then they do want to stop the violence. And one of the things Secretary Kerry is trying to do is to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan to tap into tribal networks in Iraq, which they fund and support, to push the idea of an inclusive government, to put forward candidates and to help fight against ISIS.

The other thing Kerry apparently talked to the Arab leaders about was the possibility of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. And the U.S. needs buy-in from the Sunni Arab nations if it's going to use airstrikes on Sunni fighters. There's no clear word when or even if the U.S. could begin airstrikes, but President Obama is definitely leaving this open as an option. And finally, Scott, Secretary Kerry was also asking the Gulf Arab leaders to try and curtail funding for ISIS, you know, whether it's coming through charities or individuals in their countries but is finding their way to the militants in Iraq right now.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northman who's been traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry this week. Thanks very much for being with us.

NORTHAM: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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