BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's new prime minister ruled out stationing U.S. ground troops in his country, chiding the international community Wednesday for inaction in Syria and lamenting the "puzzling" exclusion of neighboring Iran from the coalition being assembled to fight the Islamic State group.
Haider al-Abadi has been embraced by the West as a more inclusive leader who might heal the internal rifts that have dismembered Iraq. But his forthrightness in an interview with The Associated Press — his first with international media — suggested a man capable of parting ways on vision and holding his ground.
Al-Abadi praised the U.S. aerial campaign targeting the militants who have overrun much of northern and western Iraq and carved out a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border, saying it has helped efforts to roll back the Sunni extremists.
But he stressed that he sees no need for the U.S. or other nations to send troops into Iraq to help fight the Islamic State.
"Not only is it not necessary," he said, "We don't want them. We won't allow them. Full stop."
Instead, al-Abadi urged the international community to expand its campaign against the extremists in neighboring Syria, noting that militants coming under pressure in Iraq are retreating back into Syria.
The comments provided a sharp rebuttal to remarks a day earlier by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that American ground troops may be needed to battle Islamic State forces in the Middle East if President Barack Obama's current strategy fails.
On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled House voted to give the U.S. military authority to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, with final approval expected in the Senate as early as Thursday.
However, Obama emphasized anew that American forces "do not and will not have a combat mission" in the struggle against the militants. "As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq," Obama told troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Last week, Obama outlined a plan that includes a broader military campaign in Iraq, increased support and training for Syrian rebel groups, and expanded airstrikes against the militants in Syria.
Al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker who spent 20 years in exile in Britain prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, faces the enormous task of trying to hold Iraq together amid the growing security and political challenges.
The Iraqi premier said that the Iraqi military will choose and approve targets, and that the U.S. will not take action without consulting with Baghdad first. Failure to do so, he warned, risks causing widespread civilian casualties as has happened in Pakistan and Yemen, where the U.S. has conducted drone strikes for years.
"The only contribution the American forces or the international coalition are going to help us with is from the sky," al-Abadi said. "We are not giving any blank check to the international coalition to hit any target in Iraq."
In an interview with NBC News that aired Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani questioned Obama's decision to limit U.S. involvement to air strikes.
"If they want to use planes and if they want to use unmanned planes so that nobody is injured from the Americans, is it really possible to fight terrorism without any hardship, without any sacrifice? Is it possible to reach a big goal without that? In all regional and international issues, the victorious one is the one who is ready to do sacrifice," told NBC.
The Islamic State group was established in Iraq but spread in early 2013 to Syria, where it grew exponentially in the chaos of that country's civil war. Following its success in Syria, the extremist group's fighters — including many Iraqi nationals — rampaged across northern and western Iraq in June, seizing a huge swath of land and sending tremors across the Middle East.
The group now controls territory stretching from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad, where it has established an Islamic state, or caliphate, ruled by its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
The U.S. has rejected cooperating with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Obama administration's expanded campaign against the Islamic State. The White House has long called Assad's rule illegitimate and demanded he step aside.
Al-Abadi, however, said that Iraq doesn't have the luxury of refusing cooperation with Damascus, and instead pushed for some sort of coordination.
"We cannot afford to fight our neighbor, even if we disagree on many things," al-Abadi said of the Assad regime. "We don't want to enter into problems with them. For us, sovereignty of Syria is very important."
"The fight will go on unless ISIL is hit in Syria," he added, using an acronym for the group. "This is the responsibility of the international community — on top of them the United States government — to do something about ISIL in Syria."
The two countries, both of which are allies of Iran, appear to already be coordinating on some level, and Iraq's national security adviser met Tuesday with Assad in the Syrian capital, where the two agreed to strengthen cooperation in fighting "terrorism," according to Syria's state news agency.
The CIA estimates the Islamic State group now has some 20,000 to 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, while a senior Iraqi intelligence official put the number even higher, saying more than 27,600 militants are believed to be operating in Iraq alone, about 2,600 of them foreigners. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Since the American aerial campaign began, Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, have retaken the strategic Mosul Dam, along with several small towns. French reconnaissance planes left from al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates on Monday as part of France's commitment to provide aerial support to the Iraqi government.
Iranian-backed militias have provided much of the muscle for Iraq's government as the national military has struggled. The Shiite militias played a key role recently on the ground in the Iraqi town of Amirli, where they were crucial in ending a siege by Islamic State fighters.
The U.S. hopes to pull together a broad coalition to help defeat the extremist group, but has ruled out cooperating with Iran or Syria, which both view the Islamic State group as a threat. Both countries were excluded from a conference this week in Paris that brought the U.S., France and other allies together to discuss how to address the militant threat, prompting al-Abadi to question their vision.
"I actually find it puzzling that we hold a conference in Paris to help Iraq and to fight terrorism and ... the biggest neighbor of Iraq — Iran — is excluded," he said. "That puts me as prime minister in a very difficult position."
Al-Abadi added that Iraq is caught in the middle of "a disagreement between the international allies — this international coalition — and Iran. ... For me, that is catastrophic."
Beyond the current militant crisis, Al-Abadi, who was officially named prime minister on Sept. 8, also faces the daunting task of uniting ethnic and religious groups in the government amid warnings that Iraq is on the verge of a three-way split, with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions seemingly pursuing divergent paths.
In a sign of the difficulties he faces, on Tuesday, lawmakers shot down al-Abadi's nominees for the critical posts of defense and interior minister.
Alluding to the importance of that mission, al-Abadi said Wednesday: "Inclusiveness has an outlook, an appearance, and substance. This is the only way we will succeed."