By Idrees Ali and Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. officials on Thursday called on partners in the coalition against Islamic State to increase intelligence sharing as the militant group morphs to focus on attacks beyond its shrinking self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
“Even as it is losing ground in the Middle East, we know already that they’re going to try to transform themselves into (a) global terrorist organization,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting of defense and foreign affairs chiefs from about 40 nations in the U.S.-led coalition.
“We talked about the importance of real-time communication between countries, information sharing” about militant suspects, he said.
Kerry said that issue dominated the afternoon’s discussions, which for the first time included the international police organization Interpol.
He and other officials suggested that wresting control of Islamic State’s major remaining strongholds in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria is only a matter of time.
Brett McGurk, the United States’ envoy to the coalition, told the meeting that the liberation of Mosul “is now in sight.”
But a spate of recent attacks globally claimed or apparently inspired by Islamic State, such as a truck attack in Nice, France, that killed 84 people last week, formed a grim backdrop to two days of Washington meetings aimed at combating the group.
The meetings were meant as a show of unity in the coalition, whose members have sometimes differed on strategy. But last weekend’s coup attempt in Turkey has raised questions about that key country’s focus on the fight.
Turkey’s foreign and defense ministers did not attend the sessions, but Kerry said a top official from Ankara assured the group that Turkey’s commitment to the fight against Islamic State would not be affected.
In the wake of deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels, in particular, the United States has pushed allies to share more information on suspected militants, some of whom have easily crossed intra-European borders.
Kerry said breaking down bureaucratic barriers was crucial to allow more sharing of information about threats as Islamic State seeks to boost recruitment by adopting new languages and moving into new territories.
While improvements have been made, “it is also clear now that we have to do more,” he said.
The goal, Kerry said, is “that a border guard in southern Europe has the same data about a terrorist suspect as an airport security officer in Manila.”
Iraqi and U.S. officials have not announced a timetable for an expected assault on Mosul. But a senior Baghdad-based diplomat told Reuters that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants to advance the start of the campaign to October.
U.S., Iraqi and U.N. officials have warned that the battle will unleash a flood of displaced Iraqis, necessitating a massive effort for short-term aid and longer-term stabilization.
Hinting at another complication, the defense and foreign ministers warned against abuses once Islamic State is ejected from Iraqi cities. Members of independent Shiite militias have been accused of abuses against Sunni Muslims in cities such as Tikrit and Falluja.
“Popular Mobilization Forces and similar groups operating in Iraq should be under the firm control of the Iraqi government,” they said in a statement. “Every effort must be made to prevent arbitrary detention and irregular screening procedures, while holding violators to account.”
Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi said less than 10 percent of Iraqi territory remains in Islamic State’s hands, but battlefield advances have not been matched by security gains.
A suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State this month which killed at least 292 people in central Baghdad in one of the worst such attacks since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 was a “stark example” of that failure, he said in a tweet from Washington.
German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier said that driving Islamic State out of Mosul could strengthen the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts in Syria.
“The group’s structures in Syria and Iraq are intertwined, so that a defeat for Islamic State in Mosul would undoubtedly have consequences for the situation in Syria,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal.; Writing by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by James Dalgleish and Bernard Orr)