Kerry: Egypt Has Critical Role in U.S.-led Coalition Against Islamic State

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Kerry meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the presidential palace in Cairo. September 13, 2014. Credit: AFP

AP, REUTERS - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday hailed Egypt is an "important partner" in the emerging coalition aimed at beating back the extremist Islamic State group, while stressing that the need for Cairo's support would not lead Washington to ignore human rights concerns.

During a visit to Cairo, Kerry referred to Egypt as "an intellectual and cultural capital to the Muslim world," saying it has a "critical role" to play in denouncing the harsh ideology of the Islamic State group, which has seized much of northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.

Egypt is home to Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest and most revered centers of religious learning for Sunni Muslims. It has issued several statements and religious edicts condemning the Islamic State group and its self-styled caliphate. Nearly 40 nations have agreed to contribute to what Kerry said would be a worldwide fight to defeat the militants.

Kerry spoke after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on how Egypt might contribute to the coalition. The top U.S. diplomat did not elaborate about what they had discussed.

Egypt is unlikely to send troops to battle the Islamic State group but could provide logistical and intelligence support to the coalition.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told the Egyptian daily Seventh Day on Friday that Egypt's participation in the coalition "doesn't necessarily mean that we will participate in a military action."

Kerry's visit comes two days after representatives from 10 Arab countries, including Egypt, met with the top American diplomat in the Saudi city of Jeddah promising to "do their share" to fight the Islamic State militants.

NATO member Turkey is refusing to join in, while the United States has refused to partner with Iran or Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, despite the fact that both view the Islamic State group as a major threat.

The 10 Mideast allies announced their backing for a strategy to "destroy" the group "wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria," following a meeting with Kerry in the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah.

U.S.-Egypt ties have been strained since July 2013, when al-Sissi, then the army chief, overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid massive protests demanding his resignation.

The U.S. has criticized Egypt's subsequent massive crackdown on Morsi's supporters and withheld some military aid while urging Cairo to press ahead with a democratic transition and respect human rights.

Kerry said he had raised those concerns with al-Sissi during their talks on Saturday and insisted the U.S. "does not ever trade its concerns for human rights for any other objective."

Egypt: Global action needed

Meanwhile, Egypt's foreign minister said on Saturday ties existed between Islamic State and other militants in the region and that global action was needed to counter the threat.

Sameh Shukri, speaking at a Cairo news conference with Kerry, said regional militant groups shared the same ideology and must be dealt with.

Egypt's call for international action could bolster Kerry's bid to gather support for Obama's plan to strike both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier to defeat Islamic State Sunni fighters.

"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.

"We believe that rejecting terrorism is a collective responsibility of all members of the international community. There should be definite steps to achieve this target."

Egypt fears ties between groups

Egyptian security officials fear they face a threat from Egyptian militants based across the border in Libya and from the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Egypt's most dangerous militant group. Both are linked to or inspired by Islamic State.

"We are working with international efforts to combat terrorism whether in Libya or Iraq or any other Arab country," said Shukri.

Obama's plan to fight Islamic State simultaneously in Iraq and Syria thrusts the United States directly into the midst of two different wars, in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, alliances have shifted and strategy is dominated by Islam's 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Islamic State is made up of Sunni militants, who are fighting a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and a government in Syria led by members of a Shi'ite offshoot sect.

In Syria, Turkey has backed mainly Sunni rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad. Although it is alarmed by Islamic State's rise, Turkey is wary about any military action that might weaken Assad's foes, and is concerned about strengthening Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Reuters some Arab states at talks in Jeddah on Thursday had proposed expanding the campaign to fight other Islamist groups besides Islamic State, a move Turkey would also probably oppose.

Egypt would welcome any move that would further isolate the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that the army removed from power last year.

Egyptian authorities have cracked down on the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of members and jailing thousands of others. Egypt has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group.

Qatar has asked seven senior figures from Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to leave the country, the movement said on Saturday, following months of pressure on the Gulf Arab state from its neighbors to stop backing the Islamists.

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