French Defense Minister in Iraq for talks on anti IS war

NNA – French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in Baghdad Monday on an unannounced visit for talks with Iraqi officials on the war against the Islamic State jihadist group.

Le Drian discussed the campaign against IS, in which France is playing a major role, with President Fuad Masum and parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, their offices said in statements.

He also met with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi.

IS claimed attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November last year and there is concern that the jihadists will strike the country again.

Belgium’s federal prosecutor has said a jihadist cell that attacked the Brussels airport and a metro station last month, killing 32 people, initially planned to target France.

France is part of a U.S.-led coalition that is carrying out air strikes against IS and providing training and other assistance to Iraqi and Syrian forces.

According to the French military, France has carried out more than 580 strikes against IS, destroying over 1,000 targets.

The country carries out 15 percent of coalition air operations, and it has around 350 soldiers deployed to Iraq.

Le Drian, who arrived in Baghdad from Kuwait where he met his counterpart, will also visit French troops during his trip to Iraq.

The United States has carried out the majority of coalition strikes and has deployed some 3,900 military personnel to the country, including special forces carrying out raids against IS.

The jihadist group overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained ground with backing from the coalition.

IS still controls significant territory in western Iraq and holds major areas in neighboring Syria.

Le Drian’s visit comes just days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vowed during a trip to Baghdad that the coalition and Iraq would turn up the heat on IS after the jihadists suffered a string of losses.

But while the jihadists are on the defensive, they are still able to carry out frequent bombings targeting civilians and security forces in government-held areas.

In addition to major security challenges, Iraq has also been hit by an economic crisis caused by slumping oil prices, and political tensions over efforts to replace the current cabinet.

Abadi has called for “fundamental” change to the cabinet so that it includes “professional and technocratic figures and academics,” and presented a list of nominees to parliament last week.

But powerful Iraqi parties and politicians rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds, and lawmakers said the political blocs are nominating other candidates.

Officials have said a vote on new candidates could take place on Tuesday, but the end result may be a variation on the current system of party-affiliated ministers. —AFP