By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urged members of the coalition fighting Islamic State to take jihadi detainees back to their countries and step up their funding to help restore infrastructure in Iraq and Syria, parts of which were severely damaged by conflict.
“Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody, and impose accountability for the atrocities they have perpetrated,” Pompeo said at the opening of a meeting of foreign ministers from the global coalition to defeat Islamic State.
Islamic State has lost almost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria. Former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. raid last month, but experts and allies worry that the militant group remains a security threat in Syria and beyond.
Some 10,000 Islamic State detainees and tens of thousands of family members remain in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria guarded by the Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States. Washington is pushing European countries to take their citizens back, but so far they have been reluctant to do so.
Pompeo also asked coalition members to help fill the gap in funding to restore essential services and rebuild critical infrastructure in Iraq to facilitate the return of millions of displaced Iraqis.
“We will need help likewise in northeast Syria,” he said.
Since his announcement last December that he would pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, President Donald Trump has softened plans after a backlash from Congress, who say he enabled a long-threatened Turkish incursion on Oct. 9 against Kurdish forces in Syria. The Kurds had been America’s top allies in the battle against Islamic State since 2014.
Since then, Trump has agreed to keep a residual force in the northeastern part of the country, focusing on preventing Islamic State from staging a comeback and attacking the oilfields there. Washington is also keeping control of the air space.
Speaking at the opening of the same event, NATO Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg also touched on the threat Islamic State still poses. “The fight is not over. ISIS is still a threat. The situation in northeastern Syria remains fragile and difficult.”
Pompeo also said there were growing concerns about the threat of Islamic State outside of Iraq and Syria, and in places like West Africa and the Sahel. He said the United States was planning to hold a specific coalition meeting to focus on boosting support for those areas.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Susan Heavey, Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis)