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US general warns that Iraqi divisions could split anti-IS coalition

Bridging sectarian divide crucial to Iraq's long-term stability, says Martin Dempsey
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey gives a joint press conference (AFP)

A top US official has warned that sectarian divisions in Iraq could end up splintering the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition.

General Martin Dempsey, who toured Iraq from 2003 to 2011, told reporters in the Bahraini capital Manama that promises by the new government of Iraq to bridge the divide between Sunnis and Shiites had not been fulfilled.

"I come away a bit concerned that it's going to be difficult to sustain the coalition for the rest of the challenge -- which is trans-regional –- unless the government of Iraq can actually form that national unity platform to which they committed,” he said.

While he acknowledged that militarily the coalition, which was formed in September 2014 following the rise of IS, was winning substantial victories and that IS was "under pressure in almost every corner of Iraq" he warned that without long-term planning for unity in the country there could be no permanent stability.

He also noted that the Iraqi army still suffered from incompetence in its ranks.

"Militarily I was clear that there are still some leaders who need to be replaced," he said.

"There is still a shortage of recruits. There are still instances where those recruits are not being paid on time or equipped properly."

The majority of Iraqis belong to the Shiite Muslim sect, but until the fall of former President Saddam Hussein in 2003 they had never been in power.

The government of Nouri el-Maliki, who took power after Hussein’s ouster, had been frequently criticised for encouraging sectarianism in the country and marginalising Sunni Iraqis.

In addition, the growth of Shiite militias – some with direct links to Iran – has further raised tensions about inter-sectarian violence, with frequent reports of human rights abuses against Sunnis.

Dempsey noted that, while flying in a helicopter over Iraq, he noticed "the plethora of flags, only one of which happens to be the Iraqi flag.”

Concerns about Iranian influence

He said Sunni Arab countries in the region, several of which are taking part in air strikes in Syria, were anxious about Iran's influence in Iraq.

Iran's role has taken on new importance in recent days as Shiite militia armed and trained by Tehran are playing a high-profile role in a major offensive on IS in Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

In a joint news conference with Dempsey in Baghdad, Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obaidi made no apologies for enlisting military aid from Iran.

"We are in a state of war and we look to our friends to help us in this confrontation," Obaidi said.

In his talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Obaidi, Dempsey said he acknowledged their "instinct" to look for assistance from any country ready to provide it.

But he also stressed that "they should also be aware of the challenge of holding together the... coalition," Dempsey said.

The IS group has sought to exploit the grievances of alienated Sunnis in Iraq, and Dempsey has urged Baghdad to tackle what he calls the "underlying" sectarian issue.

The general, who spent several tours in Iraq during the 2003-2011 US occupation, said it was unclear whether Iraq's links to Iran were only about battling the IS or part of a broader agenda.

"What I'm trying to sort out is the degree to which the near term embrace of the assistance they're receiving from Iran is a reaction to the existential threat (from IS) or whether it's something longer-term," he said.

"And by the way, it could be longer-term and not necessarily negative."

Throughout his trip to the region, which included talks with leaders in Bahrain and with his French counterpart aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf, Dempsey said he stressed the importance of keeping intact the global coalition against IS.

"I reminded everyone -- the Bahrainis, the French and the Iraqis -- that fundamental to the success of the campaign is the solidarity of the coalition, and anything that could threaten that solidarity we really need to be alert to," he said.

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