Allies vow to destroy IS as attacks overshadow talks

Dave Clark
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Iraqi civilians help a man who was injured by a mortar shell fired by Islamic State group jihadists on civilians who were gathered to receive aid, in Al-Risala neighbourhood on March 22, 2017

The US-led coalition against the Islamic State group vowed to crush the jihadists Wednesday at a meeting overshadowed by an attack in London and civilian deaths in Syria.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed his counterparts from the mainly Western and Arab 68-nation alliance to Washington with a promise to hunt down IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But he also warned the coalition is "not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction," amid concerns President Donald Trump is preparing to slash the US foreign aid budget.

Meanwhile, even as the ministers gathered at the State Department, news was breaking of the latest coalition air strike to have reportedly killed dozens of civilians in northern Syria.

Then, as the delegates talked, reports came in from London about an attack on pedestrians and police outside the British parliament. Four people were killed and 40 injured in the assault that police attributed to "Islamist-related terrorism."

Tillerson met with Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after the coalition summit, but a joint press appearance was cancelled at the last minute.

In a statement released after the meeting, the 68 partners underlined their "determination to intensify and accelerate... efforts to eliminate ISIS" in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

They hailed progress by US-backed local forces against the group's main strongholds in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian capital of its so-called "caliphate," Raqa.

And, as they predicted victory on the battlefield, they vowed to prevent the group's fleeing fighters from spreading instability or from setting up a propaganda base in cyber space.

- 'Increase pressure' on IS -

Tillerson said the US and its allies would help clear mines and establish stability in the aftermath of the fighting, but warned Iraq must lead its own reconstruction.

The strategy he outlined did not differ much from that in place under the previous US administration of president Barack Obama, but he did suggest a new plan for regional truces in Syria.

He admitted that "a more defined course of action in Syria is still coming together."

But he added: "The United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda and will work to establish interim zones of stability through ceasefires to allow refugees to go home."

Under Trump, the United States is seeking to ban refugees from Syria, which would increase pressure on Syria's neighbors, already all but overwhelmed by millions fleeing the carnage.

Some in Washington want "safe zones" to be set up to house those fleeing both the war against the IS group and the bloodier civil conflict between rebels and Bashar al-Assad's regime.

But little detail has emerged as to how these might work.

On the battlefield, things are clearer, for now.

As US-led special forces and planes, Iraqi forces and Syrian militia groups close in Mosul and Raqa, the talk is of tracking down the Islamic State's mysterious leader.

"Nearly all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's deputies are now dead, including the mastermind behind the attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere," Tillerson told delegates.

"It is only a matter of time before Baghdadi himself meets this same fate," he vowed.

- 'Global force of evil' -

This month, a US defense official told reporters that Baghdadi had fled Mosul -- which has been encircled by Iraqi forces -- and is cut off from day-to-day command of his fighters.

"The great commonality among we who have gathered today is a commitment to bringing down a global force of evil and I emphasize the word commitment," Tillerson said.

Trump has ordered his generals to craft an accelerated strategy to "eradicate" the IS group, and the allies hoped to learn more during the closed-door discussions and follow-up talks.

But Trump's plan to slash more than a quarter from the US budgets for diplomacy and foreign aid has raised eyebrows, suggesting fewer resources for post-conflict stabilization.

The allies are also impatient for Washington to decide on which force will be used to take Raqa.

US forces have been training and supporting a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia alliance dominated by the Kurdish YPG that has proved effective north of the city.

But key US ally Turkey regards the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, which it dubs "terrorist," and wants to use a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel force instead.

Diplomatic wrangling over which unit will take the lead has held up the offensive, despite US reinforcements heading to the area to provide special forces and artillery support.

"I know it's a difficult choice. The Americans are asking their allies for more time," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said after the meeting.

"I hope the answer won't take too long. It's urgent," he added.

- 'Obliterate' -

Shortly after taking office in late January, Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to review progress in the anti-IS fight and develop a comprehensive plan to "totally obliterate" the group.

So far, he has largely stuck with the previous strategy of using US-led forces for surveillance and strikes on jihadist targets, while training and equipping local ground combat forces.

But Trump has made some tweaks, including granting commanders broader authority to make battlefield decisions.

Military officers had complained of micromanagement under Obama, but critics worry the military may now risk actions with a greater likelihood of civilian deaths.

On Wednesday, a suspected coalition air raid hit a school being used as a temporary shelter for displaced families between Raqa and Tabqa, an IS-controlled town further west.

Some 33 civilians are feared dead, and the Pentagon promised to investigate whether US-led forces were at fault.