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August 16, 2013

US, Iraq Vow to Fight al-Qaida Surge

by Alex Villarreal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed his Iraqi counterpart to the State Department on Thursday, as part of a 2008 agreement outlining long-term cooperation on counterterrorism and other issues.  The talks came as Iraq is facing a surge in violence from the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, a group now spreading into Syria.

It was another bloody day in Baghdad, as Secretary Kerry and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari vowed to confront Iraq’s ongoing security challenges together.

“Sunni and Shi'ites extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide throughout the region have an ability to threaten Iraq’s stability if they're not checked.  And al-Qaida, as we have seen, has launched a horrific series of assaults on innocent Iraqis, even taking credit for the deplorable bombings over the past weekend.”

The attacks have raised fears of a return to widespread sectarian violence, fears Foreign Minister Zebari sought to allay.

“Iraq is not heading - is not crashing, and it's not heading to civil or sectarian war," he said. "There is a clear determination by the Iraqi leadership that, really, we've been there before in 2007, 2008.  We are not going to go there again.”

But just across the border, Syria already is there.  And extremists from Iraq are playing a role.

“This al-Qaida network, we know, stretches beyond Iraq’s borders.  With many al-Qaida leaders now operating in Syria, we all need to accelerate our work in order to set the conditions for a diplomatic settlement to the Syrian crisis," said Kerry.

Zebari stressed Iraq is “neutral” on Syria’s war and not providing arms or support to either side.

“No Iraqi volunteers are going to Syria with the consent of the Iraqi government at all,“ he said.

Kerry said Iraq has made progress in stopping the flow of weapons to and from Syria, but needs to do more.

Not even two years have passed since the United States withdrew from Iraq, after eight years of war and reports of a “weakened” al-Qaida.  But Johns Hopkins University professor Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, says the current expansion of the group in Iraq and beyond cannot be blamed on the United States.

“I don't think it represents a failure of U.S. efforts at all.  It was clear we were never going to kill every al-Qaida member in Iraq.  It represents a failure of the Iraqi government since the American withdrawal to contain and repress al-Qaida in Iraq, and, of course,  it represents al-Qaida taking an advantage of an opportunity in Syria,” said Serwer.

Thursday’s meeting is part of the Strategic Framework Agreement the United States and Iraq reached in 2008.  In addition to counterterrorism efforts, the accord covers joint commitments in economics, energy, education, health and justice.