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Hollande backs Iraq as world ramps up anti-ISIS efforts

BAGHDAD, Iraq (UPDATED) – President Francois Hollande said during a visit to Baghdad Friday, September 12, that France is ready to step up military assistance for Iraq, as global efforts intensified to defeat Islamic State (IS) jihadists.

It was the highest-profile visit to Iraq since led militants led by IS (formerly known as ISIS or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) overran large parts of the country in June and sparked international concern over an expanding jihadist threat.

Hollande touched down hours after Washington secured commitments from 10 Arab states to help stamp out ISIS, which the Central Intelligence Agency has said has as many as 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.

The United States, which pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011, began a campaign of air strikes against the group last month.

President Barack Obama vowed this week to expand operationsincluding to Syria, and the Pentagon said combat aircraft would soon start flying out of a base in the country's north.

Obama is seeking to build a broad coalition to defeat ISIS, which has declared a caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, attacked minorities, posted videos of gruesome beheadings online and vowed to take the fight to the West.

France, which is to host an international conference on Iraq on Monday, September 15, has said it is prepared to take part in air strikes against the militants in Iraq "if necessary."

"I came here to Baghdad to state France's availability in providing even more military assistance to Iraq," Hollande said at a news conference with Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, whose cabinet was approved by parliament this week but with key security posts unfilled.

Hollande later travelled to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region for meetings with officials, and also visited a church sheltering displaced Iraqi Christians.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told journalists there: "We have already welcomed 100 (displaced Christians) and there will be another 100 in the coming days."

Ten Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, "agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight" against ISIS, they said after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday, September 11, in Jeddah.

'Repudiating their hateful ideology'

Along with the Saudis, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are parties to the agreement, as are Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

The fight would include "stopping the flow of foreign fighters through neighboring countries, countering financing of (IS) and other violent extremists, repudiating their hateful ideology, ending impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice."

It would also include humanitarian relief, and the US would has pledged an additional $500 million in assistance for victims of the Syria conflict.

France, along with the United States and Britain, has pledged to supply arms to the autonomous Kurdish government, whose peshmerga forces play a key role in attempts to recapture the areas the Islamic State seized.

Fabius has said France was prepared to take part in US-led air strikes against the jihadists in Iraq "if necessary" but has stressed that Syria was a different situation.

Kerry was in Ankara Friday after NATO member and key regional ally Turkey refused to allow its air bases to be used in the campaign or to participate in combat.

On the eve of the visit, a Turkish official told Agence France-Presse: "Our hands and arms are tied because of the hostages."

He was referring to the 49 Turks, including diplomats and children, abducted from the Turkish consulate in Mosul in Iraq in June.

Strong recruitment

ISIS now has about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the CIA said, much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000.

"This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence," spokesman Ryan Trapani said.

The vastly higher estimate underscored the scale of the challenge after Obama vowed to expand an offensive against the extremists.

In other developments, Germany, which has ruled out taking part in air strikes against ISIS, outlawed Friday providing active support to ISIS, warning that the group poses a threat to Europe.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the immediate ban covered the recruitment, including on the Internet, of jihadist fighters, the use of ISIS symbols and social media propaganda.

"Germany is a well-fortified democracy. There's no place here for a terrorist organization which opposes the constitutional order as well as the notion of international understanding," he said in a statement.

The radical Islamist group, which has committed horrifying atrocities in the wide swathes of Iraq and Syria it controls, is also a public security threat in Germany, De Maiziere warned, adding: "We are resolutely confronting this threat today."

He also reiterated concern over an estimated 400 Germans who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight on the side of the jihadists, some of whom have returned to Germany.

"We must prevent radical Islamists bringing their jihad to our cities," he said. – Rappler.com