BAGHDAD/CAIRO (Reuters) - Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday that he had ordered his air force to halt strikes on civilian areas, following attacks by both Iraqi and U.S. jets in large areas of the country held by Islamic State fighters.
The announcement, which comes as the United States tries to build regional support for deeper military action against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may be aimed at winning Sunni Muslim support for Abadi’s new Shi’ite-led government as it battles the group which controls one third of Iraqi territory.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been touring the Middle East to coordinate a response to Islamic State’s growing power in eastern Syria and western Iraq. In Cairo on Saturday, he said Egypt has a critical role to play in countering the group’s hardline Sunni Islamist ideology.
Abadi said his order to protect civilians had been issued on Thursday, a day after he held talks with Kerry in Baghdad.
Sunni Muslim tribal figures, who the U.S. hopes can be persuaded to turn against the jihadists, have demanded a freeze on military action on civilian areas as one of the conditions for their support of the Shi’ite-led government.
But residents in two Sunni areas of Iraq said there had been indiscriminate air strikes during the past two days.
“I have ordered the Iraqi Air Force to halt shelling of civilian areas even in those towns controlled by ISIS,” Abadi said on his official Twitter account, using the former name for militant group Islamic State.
Herak, a Sunni opposition grouping which has led anti-government protests and has ties to armed Sunni groups, said they “positively welcomed” Abadi’s comments, a rare break in their usually dissenting rhetoric.
The United Nation’s representative in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, welcomed the comments, which were repeated by Abadi at a conference about refugees on Saturday in Baghdad.
“Protection of civilians and ensuring their safety and security is a paramount priority for the United Nations,” Mladenov said.
Islamic State took the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit in June and has announced an Islamic Caliphate in areas it controls.
Its fighters have shocked the world with killings of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians, Yazidis and Kurds. Western governments and Islamic countries fear their citizens who fight for Islamic State could threaten national security if they return.
President Barack Obama plans to strike both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier to defeat Islamic State Sunni fighters and build an international coalition for a potentially complex military campaign in the heart of the Middle East.
Egyptian security officials, in particular, have expressed concerns that Egyptian militants based across the border in chaotic post-Gaddafi Libya who are inspired by Islamic State are plotting against the Cairo government.
Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shukri said on Saturday during a press conference with Kerry that ties existed between Islamic State and other militants in the region and that global action was needed to counter the threat.
“Ultimately this extremist ideology is shared by all terrorist groups. We detect ties of cooperation between them and see a danger as it crosses borders,” said Shukri.
Egypt’s call for international action could bolster Kerry’s bid to gather regional support for action in Syria and Iraq.
But Iraq’s powerful neighbour Iran — which Kerry said will not join talks in Paris on Monday about confronting Islamic State — accused the United States of trying to monopolise the international campaign and blamed Washington for fostering an environment which had allowed the group to flourish.
“In taking a big jump ahead of international bodies, America seeks to emerge as a Hollywood-style hero battling a crisis of its own making,” Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as saying.
“America’s actions (in coalition-building) are aimed at distracting world public opinion from the central role it played in arming and training terrorist groups to topple the legal Syrian government,” state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Friday 64 percent of Americans in a online survey said they backed Obama’s campaign. Twenty-one percent were opposed and 16 percent said they did not know.
Pope Francis said on Saturday the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere were effectively a “piecemeal” Third World War, condemning the arms trade and “plotters of terrorism” sowing death and destruction.
In the past few months, Francis has appealed for an end to conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and parts of Africa.
“Humanity needs to weep and this is the time to weep,” he said during a visit to Italy’s largest war memorial in Redipuglia, Italy, a Fascist-era monument where more than 100,000 soldiers who died in World War One are buried.
Additional reporting by Mehrdad Balali, Alistair Bell in Washington and Stefano Rellandini in Redipuglia, Italy; Editing by Ralph Boulton