Iraq seeks U.S. air power against militants - officials

JEDDAH Wed Jun 18, 2014 11:33pm IST

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey speaks next to U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 18, 2014.  REUTERS/Larry Downing

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey speaks next to U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 18, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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JEDDAH (Reuters) - Iraq has requested U.S. air power to try to reverse rapid territorial gains by Sunni Muslim insurgents, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday.

Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters Iraq had asked for air strikes "to break the morale" of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has captured cities and towns in the north in a lightning advance over the past week.

He added that Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government but "everything is possible".

In Washington, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged to Congress on Wednesday that Iraq had sought U.S. air support, but gave no details of the request.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a hearing.

Asked whether the United States should honour that request, Dempsey answered indirectly, saying: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them.”

Speaking after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Zebari said air power was needed to start to roll back gains by the insurgents, who have captured large amounts of weaponry from the Iraqi army during their advance.

"I explained to our Arab brothers in the meeting, that Iraq officially requested the United States’ help according to the ... strategic agreement between Iraq and the United States of America, to direct air strikes (on) some of the group’s vital targets to break this state of morale now present, and to ... begin the operation of defeating them," he said.

Zebari also criticised what he said was the lack of a condemnation by Riyadh of massacres by ISIL.

Iraq has accused Sunni power Saudi Arabia of backing the group, a charge strongly denied by Riyadh, which designated ISIL a terrorist organisation last month.

"The first reaction that we heard from the kingdom after the events in Iraq, was that it was all due to exclusionary (policies) and sectarianism (by the Iraqi government). There was no reference to...the slaughter, the bloodletting and the killing,” Zebari said.

(Reporting by Amena Bakr and Yara Bayoumy; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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