At Mideast forum, officials seek world's help

AP News
Posted: May 23, 2015 3:05 PM
At Mideast forum, officials seek world's help

SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan (AP) — Mideast-weary though it may be, the international community has a duty and an interest in helping the countries of the region both rebuff violent extremists and fix the refugee crisis that in part has resulted from the fight with them — that was the message coming from the regional World Economic Forum Saturday.

"In Iraq and the region as a whole, the biggest challenge we face is extremism and terrorism, but this has repercussions at the international level," said Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi.

"Terrorism is not plaguing Iraq alone but is spilling over," agreed Saleh Muhammed Al Mutlaq, Iraq's deputy prime minister. "If it does, it will affect the stability and security of the whole world. We cannot expect that any Arab country can fight terrorism without the help of the international community."

Iraqi officials at the Dead Sea gathering said their country needed far more weapons and that Arab and Western countries should help devise a strategy for crushing the Islamic State radicals who have taken over more than a third of the country and in recent weeks made key gains near Baghdad. Some suggested they would welcome an Arab coalition on the ground, and one mused about a return of the Americans. All seemed to agree that the current strategy of mostly airstrikes wasn't working.

Meanwhile, the group is spreading tentacles and also poses "a very serious threat" to divided Libya if rival governments there fail to reach a unity deal quickly, said Bernadino Leon, the United Nations envoy to the North African country. The extremists in the country have grown from a few small groups six to eight months ago to more than 2,000 loyalists, and the Islamic State group "has a strong capacity in Tripoli," he said.

Because it is lawless and relatively close to EU territory in the form of the Italian island of Lampedusa, Libya has also become the favored launch point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to reach safety by boat.

Human rights officials at the Forum called on governments to do more to help these migrants.

Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, said borders must be "open to Syrians everywhere," including in Europe. European governments are sharply divided over the issue, including proposals to set country quotas for absorbing refugees as a way of sharing the burden more evenly. Only a few European countries, including Germany, have taken in Syrian refugees.

A liberal approach, he said, would help ease the burden of Middle Eastern countries that have absorbed close to 4 million Syrian refugees. "They are the first line of defense for global collective security and they are pillars, essential pillars, for regional security," Guterres told The Associated Press.

Close to 15 million people already have been uprooted by conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Guterres said, adding that "many of those displaced live in absolute misery."

"We have to be very careful what we are asking the recipient countries to do," said Imad Fakhoury, minister of planning for Jordan, which has taken in over 600,000 Syrian refugees officially — with the actual number almost certainly much higher and possibly double.

International aid agencies and governments of refugee host countries are struggling with a growing funding gap for efforts to alleviate the crisis. They requested $8.4 billion for this year, including $2.9 billion for work inside Syria and $5.5 billion for refugees and their host countries.

Both programs so far have received only about one-fifth of the needed funds, U.N. officials have said.

"The richer governments have got to be persuaded to do more. The oil-rich states have got to do more," said former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is an adviser on the issue for the Forum. He said the funding shortfall amounted to $150 million per year.

There was much discussion at the Forum about the root cause of the problem.

In Syria and especially Iraq, the Muslim world's Sunni-Shiite divide explains much. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni who kept the more numerous Shiite population at bay; the U.S.-led military invasion that deposed him in 2003 yielded a democratically elected Shiite government that was so exclusionist that many Sunnis now support anyone who attacks their new tormentors — even the Islamic State group or its predecessor, Al-Qaida.

But IS recruits young people all over the region and even around the world into a life where they may well both commit atrocities in the name of religion and eventually lose their own lives.

"We need to understand where the primary factors lie," said Sarah Sewall, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. "We have neither the resources nor the time to make every country perfect. But the emphasis should be to diagnose specifically what the drivers are."

Suleiman Bakhit, a Jordanian entrepreneur who produces superhero comics in Arabic, said jihadis are selling "terrorism as heroism" to young people disaffected by the reality in their countries. "There is a lack of positive role models for our children," he said. "We need a different kind of heroism, one that is based on narratives of hope and tolerance."

Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, urged good governance: "One of the root causes is the lack of confidence" in the political and business communities, he argued.

For all the talk of the Islamic State group, there was a notable lack of clarity about the enemy.

"We wish to know who are sponsoring Daesh," said Al Mutlaq, referring to the Islamic State group by its commonly used Arabic name. "Who are they? What are their aims? What do they want from the region?"


Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Southern Shuneh, Jordan contributed to this report.