(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Tuesday that U.S. combat forces will not return to Iraq, but both he and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration will consider future requests from Iraq’s new government, once it is formed, for security assistance beyond that now being given.
“There will be no reintroduction of American combat forces into Iraq,” Kerry told reporters in Sydney, Australia. “That is the beginning of the discussion. This is a fight that Iraqis need to join on behalf of Iraq.”
Once an inclusive government which the U.S. has been pushing for is in place in Baghdad, he said, the U.S. would be willing to provide additional assistance in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
“Now I’m not going to get into the details today, before a new prime minister is there and a government is there and we’ve talked to them and we know what they think their needs are and how they define the road ahead, but I will tell you that without any question, we are prepared to consider additional political, economic, and security options as Iraq starts to build a new government,” Kerry said.
“There are already a significant group of programs in place under the strategic framework agreement, and we, with a new government in place, would absolutely look to provide additional options, and we would consider those options for sure in an effort to strengthen an effort.”
Kerry was speaking alongside Hagel and the Australian foreign and defense ministers after annual U.S.-Australia ministerial talks known as AUSMIN.
Hagel said the U.S. had in recent days complied with Iraqi government requests to deliver humanitarian aid to people displaced by ISIS and stranded on Mount Sinjar in the country’s far north-west; and to transfer military equipment to the Kurdish “peshmerga” forces fighting against ISIS in the area.
Beyond that, “as Secretary Kerry noted and as President Obama has said, as a new government begins, takes shape, we would consider further requests from that new government,” he said.
Hagel repeated the administration’s position that Iraq’s future will “not be determined by a military solution,” but also added that “we would wait and see what future requests that this new government would ask of us, and we would consider those based on those requests.”
As for the road ahead in Iraq, Kerry expressed the hope that once a government in Baghdad is viewed as representing the interests of all Iraqis, Sunni tribes may rise up against the jihadists as happened during the Iraq war.
“We are convinced that with a unified effort by Iraqis – and particularly if there is a return to the kind of localized efforts that existed in the Sons of Anbar or the Iraqi Anbar awakening, as it’s referred to – that there will be plenty of opportunity here for a pushback against ISIL forces, which is why the restoration of a unified, inclusive government is so critical as a starting point.”
The 2006-7 Anbar awakening was a campaign by Sunni tribes in Iraq’s biggest province against al-Qaeda in Iraq – the precursor to ISIS – which together with the “surge” of troop reinforcements sent in by President Bush helped to stem sectarian violence, and marked a turning point in the war.
Encouraging an independent Kurdistan?
Asked whether direct U.S. military support for Kurdish forces may encourage a final breakaway from Iraq of the Kurdish region – which has exercised autonomy since 1992 – Hagel stressed that “America’s position is a unified Iraq.”
Kerry played down the concerns, saying if anything the ISIS crisis has seen improved cooperation between Iraq’s national government and the Kurdish administration based in Erbil.
“We welcome increased coordination and support between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish forces. That is taking place right now,” he said. “It’s quite unique, and we think that’s a signal of a growing potential for cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil.”
In fact, Kerry said the provision of arms to the Kurds through the government in Baghdad “raises as many questions about the possibility of greater cooperation as it does with the possibility of further efforts for separation.”
“What I do know is from my own meetings with [Kurdish] President [Massoud] Barzani recently, he is very committed to this transition in Baghdad, in Iraq, in the government,” Kerry said. “He is committed to trying to be a force for a strong federal government that works for all Iraqis – and that’s the only subject on the table at this point in time.”
Kerry did not mention the fact that Barzani early last month called on the autonomous region’s parliament to plan for a referendum on Kurdish independence.
At the time State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reacted to the referendum call by saying the message Kerry was conveying was that “a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq, and the focus should be on the existential threat that all Iraqis face and that people in the region face, which is the threat of ISIL.”
The Kurdish region of Iraq operates as one of the few democracies in the Middle East, holding both parliamentary and presidential elections. It has its own armed forces, the peshmerga, with the president serving as commander-in-chief.
Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world not to have a state of their own, but the governments of the countries where most of them live – around 15 million in Turkey, eight million in Iran, six million in Iraq and two million in Syria – all firmly oppose independence.