By Jason Szep
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday as he began a tour of the Middle East to build military, political and financial support to defeat Islamic State militants controlling parts of Iraq and Syria.
Kerry on Monday had hailed the formation of a new, more inclusive, Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as a "major milestone", and Washington had said it was vital before there could be further U.S. action to help push back the militants, who took over large parts of northern Iraq this year.
Kerry flew to Baghdad from Jordan, first stop on the tour that will include Saudi Arabia and probably other Arab capitals.
Last week nine countries, most of them in Europe, were named as the core group of a coalition President Barack Obama says will degrade and destroy Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in the land it took over and executed many prisoners, including two American journalists who were beheaded.
In Washington, Obama will give a speech on Wednesday in which he will detail his plan to confront the militants, which could take several years.
Two days after Iraq formed a new government, Kerry arrived in Baghdad to "take it to the next level", as a senior U.S. official put it, and find a way to defeat Islamic State.
Kerry will meet Abadi, whose government faces multiple crises from the need to pull Sunni Muslims back from armed revolt to persuading minority Kurds not to break away and convincing Abadi’s own majority Shi'ites he can protect them from Sunni hardliners.
His visit comes hours before a speech in which Obama will try to rally Americans behind another war in a region he has long sought to leave, backed by what Washington hopes will be a coalition of NATO and Gulf Arab allies committed to a campaign that could stretch beyond the end of Obama’s term in 2016.
"We’re now at the stage of beginning to build a broad-based coalition," a senior U.S. State Department official said. "There is, of course, military support, and that’s everything from logistics and intelligence and airlifts and all the things it takes to conduct an effective military campaign.”
Unlike his predecessor, Abadi enjoys the support of nearly all of Iraq's major political groups, and the two most influential outside powers, Iran and the United States.
U.S. officials hope he will present a unified front to weaken Islamic State, which has seized a third of both Iraq and Syria, and declared a caliphate.
While it is unclear what steps will be taken to strengthen the Iraqi army after its collapse in the face of an Islamic State onslaught in June, the senior U.S. official said tentative plans for a new National Guard unit, announced by Abadi on Monday, were intended to deprive Islamic State of safe havens by handing over security to the provinces.
The new Iraqi National Guard, the U.S. official suggested, was an evolution from the Awakening movement of Iraqi tribes and urban units that helped U.S. forces repel al Qaeda in 2007-10.
The U.S. official said the National Guard fighters would receive state salaries and pensions and be incorporated into "the formal security structures of the state".
The Awakening paramilitaries also received salaries from the Iraqi government, but the decision by the Iraqi government to pay salaries late, renege on promised jobs in the police and a campaign of arrests of some Awakening leaders, at least once with U.S. government support, weakened the Sunni community in its ability to stand up against jihadists.
Two vacant cabinet posts, the Defense and Interior ministries, were close to being filled, said the U.S. official, who spoke to reporters traveling with Kerry on condition of anonymity. Abadi "wanted to have a real consensus around the names, which I think was a very wise move. And so he’s actually working on that as we speak," the official said.
ENTRENCHED SECTARIAN TENSIONS
But while the United States hailed the new government as a breakthrough, sectarian tensions appeared as entrenched as ever, possibly worsened by a month of U.S. air strikes on Sunni jihadists.
While Kurdish and Shi'ite fighters have regained ground, Sunni Muslims who fled the violence near the northern town of Amerli are being prevented from returning home and some have had their houses pillaged and torched. Sunni Arabs are also feeling a backlash in villages where they used to live alongside Kurds, who accuse them of collaborating with Islamic State.
The fallout risks worsening grievances that helped Islamic State find support amongst Iraq's Sunnis and may make it more difficult to convince them to fight the militants, who portray the U.S. strikes as targeting their minority sect.
While the U.S. official praised weeks of U.S. air strikes as "highly precise" and "strategically effective", he acknowledged much work lay ahead. "It’s going to be a very difficult, long road to get there," he said.
Any campaign to defeat Islamic State could take one to three years, Kerry said.
Kerry will meet Jordan’s King Abdullah later on Wednesday, and travel on Thursday to Saudi Arabia for talks that will include Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia is unnerved by the rapid advance of Islamic State and fears it could radicalize some of its own citizens and lead to attacks on the U.S.-allied government. Arab League foreign ministers agreed on Sunday to take all necessary measures to confront Islamic State.
Obama wants Gulf Arab states to crack down on the flow of money and foreign fighters to Islamic State, consider military action and support to Sunni Muslim moderates in Iraq and Syria, possibly through direct funds.
But while Saudi leaders have said they want to stabilize Iraq, they also fear the fight against Islamic State could hasten U.S.-Iranian detente. The battle to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Riyadh's foe Shi'ite Iran, is seen as pivotal to their own future.
Riyadh fears that if Assad survives, Tehran will expand its influence across the region and encircle the kingdom. Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in wars and political struggles in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
In Jordan, Kerry is expected to receive requests for extra military aid, including helicopters and border security equipment, along with part of the $500 million the Obama administration has proposed to accelerate training of moderate Syrian rebels, a Jordanian official told Reuters.
Jordan is considered a top choice to host the training of the rebels due its close security relationship with Washington, proximity to neighboring Syria and pool of more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan, however, fears retaliation from Syria if its territory is used for overt training.
Jordan already hosts a small and ostensibly covert effort by the CIA to equip and train small groups of Assad's opponents.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Janet Lawrence)