Alain Jocard / AFP / Getty Images

International diplomatic coalition builds against Islamic State

Representatives from 26 countries, the EU, UN and Arab League descended upon Paris to discuss strategic options

A day after Islamic State fighters beheaded a British aid worker in Syria, diplomats from around the globe convened in Paris to press ahead on agreeing upon a global strategy to combat the group whose recent gains in Iraq and Syria have worried members of the international community about the potential threat for violence to spill beyond the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressuring allies ahead of Monday’s French-hosted conference to show a united front, especially from majority-Muslim nations, saying nearly 40 countries agreed to contribute to a worldwide fight to defeat the fighters before they gain more territory in Iraq and Syria. According to a State Department official traveling with Kerry who briefed reporters on Sunday, several Arab countries had offered to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State. 

French President Francois Hollande and his Iraqi counterpart are co-chairing the conference of 26 countries, plus the European Union, United Nations and the Arab League. Hollande said the goals are to provide political support to the Iraqi government, coordinate humanitarian aid and fight the Islamic State militants.

"In holding this conference, the countries meeting today are showing their solidarity and the will to protect themselves against terrorism," Hollande said in a joint news conference with Iraqi President Fouad Massoum.

So far, France has been the only country to publicly offer to join U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State targets, although it has said its involvement would be limited to Iraq.

On Monday, French aircraft would begin reconnaissance flights over Iraq from a French base in Abu Dhabi, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. 

"We told the Iraqis we were available and asked them for authorisation [to fly over Iraq]," Fabius told France Inter radio.

The White House said Sunday it would find allies willing to send combat forces — something the United States itself has ruled out — but that it was too early to identify them. The U.S. has so far been alone in carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State fighters, an operation that began last month in Iraq with the stated goal of protecting U.S. personnel and defending the Iraqi minority Yezidi community threatened by IS and trapped on a mountain.

Muslim-majority countries are considered vital to any operation, although there have only been vague offers of help previously. However, Iran was not invited to the conference over U.S. objections, who have made clear they consider Syria's government, which is supported by Tehran, to be part of the problem.

The Paris conference, officially dedicated to peace and stability in Iraq, avoids mention of Syria, the power base of the militant organization gaining territory in both countries by the week. The gathering itself will be brief, a matter of a few hours between its start and a planned joint statement.

Massoum, a Kurd, whose role in the government is largely ceremonial, thanked the U.S., countries in the European Union and "especially Iran [and] Turkey" for their assistance in providing humanitarian aid to Iraq. He also requested the air strikes continue, adding "we will not give [IS] any safe haven."

In an exclusive interview on Sunday with The Associated Press in Paris, Massoum expressed regret that Iran was not attending the conference. Massoum noted "sensitivities between some countries and Iran."

He also seemed not to welcome the possible participation Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in any potential airstrikes in Iraqi territory.

"It is not necessary that they participate in air strikes; what is important is that they participate in the decisions of this conference," he said, underscoring Baghdad's closeness to Iran and how tensions among the regional powers could complicate the process of forming a Sunni alliance.

Speaking in his first interview since becoming Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi told state-run al-Iraqiyya in comments aired Sunday that he had given approvals to France to use Iraqi airspace and said all such authorizations would have to come from Baghdad.

The Islamic State's killing of David Haines, a British aid worker who had been held hostage, added urgency to the calls for a coherent strategy against the brutal, well-organized and well-funded group.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would continue offering logistical help to U.S. forces and that counterterrorism efforts will increase, describing the IS as a "massive" security threat that cannot be ignored.

"They are not Muslims, they are monsters," Cameron said.

Haines was the third Westerner to be killed by Islamic State fighters, after two American journalists. British officials also released the name of a second U.K. hostage being held by the group and threatened with death, identifying him as Alan Henning.

Following successes in Syria, fighters with the Islamic State group — among them many Iraqis — took on the Iraqi military in Sunni-majority Anbar province, capitalizing on long-standing grievances against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. When the militants arrived in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the U.S.-trained military crumbled almost instantly. The militants seized tanks, missile launchers and ammunition that allowed their lightning advance across northern Iraq.

The CIA estimates the Sunni militant group has access to between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. A senior Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press that more than 27,600 IS fighters are believed to be operating in Iraq alone, including about 2,600 foreigners. He spoke anonymously as he is not entitled to brief the media.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he was preparing to contribute up to 10 military aircraft and 600 personnel to be deployed to the United Arab Emirates. A statement from his office said special operations personnel who could assist Iraq's security forces were being prepared also, but combat troops were not being deployed. Australia was not on the list of countries attending the Paris conference released Sunday by the French presidency.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Sunday for "internationally agreed action to effectively stop the flow of fighters and money."

Germany on Friday banned all activity on behalf of the IS group, including the distribution of propaganda and the display of its symbols, and is supplying Kurdish forces fighting the extremists in Iraq with assault rifles, anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles. But Germany has ruled out airstrikes and ground troops.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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