Germany agrees to arm Iraq in break with post-war tradition

Germany broke with post-war tradition on Wednesday and agreed to supply weapons to Iraq to combat Islamist militants in an announcement coinciding with a decision in Washington to intensify military strikes in the region.

Angela Merkel's government is looking at providing weaponry that may include arms and ammunition, the defence and foreign ministers said at a joint press conference in Berlin.

The shift in policy underlines the growing concern in Western capitals about the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, which has captured large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in recent months and slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians.

Vianney Le Caer | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

The resolve to strike Isis has been strengthened by the beheading of an American journalist by an Islamist extremist who spoke with a British accent. US officials confirmed that the video of the execution of James Foley released by Isis on Tuesday was authentic.

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President Barack Obama said the US would be "vigilant" and "relentless" in protecting its citizens, a sign that the US will pursue Isis. Overnight, the US launched 11 air strikes against the militants in northern Iraq.

"We'll do what's necessary to see that justice is done," Mr Obama said. "One thing we can all agree on is that a group like Isis has no place in the 21st century."

John Kerry, the secretary of state, was even more scathing, saying that Isis was an "ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic and valueless evil" and "its wickedness must be destroyed".

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The US is now weighing stepping up its military commitment to northern Iraq, primarily to aid the Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting Isis.

David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, cut short his holiday and returned to London after what Downing Street described as the "shocking and depraved" video execution.

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German public opinion is deeply sensitive about military intervention abroad given the country's Nazi past. Justifying the move to arm Iraq, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister, said a collapse of the Iraqi state would have "devastating" consequences for Germany and Europe.

Berlin opposed the lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria last year, fearing that doing so might arm Islamists as well as moderates, and could spread weapons throughout the region.

The German government now views returning jihadis from the Middle East as the prime threat to its citizens' public safety. Up until last week, Berlin planned only to supply non-lethal military equipment to the Kurds.

The decision could cause a public backlash in Germany. Despite its position as the world's third largest arms exporter, it has had a long-held policy not to supply lethal weapons into conflict zones. Public opinion is strongly against any intervention in geopolitical crises.

The move came as France called for an international conference to discuss ways of combating Isis.

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"We have to come up with a global strategy to fight this group, which is structured, has significant financing, very sophisticated weapons and threatens countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon," President François Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.

Confirming that France was supplying "sophisticated weapons" to Kurdish forces fighting the jihadis in northern Iraq, Mr Hollande said he would shortly propose a conference on security in Iraq and what he called "the struggle" against Isis.

Laurent Fabius, foreign minister, said France wanted "all countries of the region, including Iran" and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to join in the action against Isis

Italy's parliament approved plans to arm the Kurdish forces fighting Isis. On a one-day visit to Iraq, Matteo Renzi, the prime minister, said the government was ready to consider requests for supplies of personal weapons and ammunition for self-defence.

Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said Italy had earmarked light automatic weapons and ammunition used by the Italian armed forces, as well as arms made in the former Soviet Union and seized at sea during the 1990s Balkan wars, to be sent to Iraq.

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Mr Hollande confirmed that France was supplying weapons to so-called moderate rebels in Syria who have been eclipsed by Isis over the past year, although he said only that these supplies "conform to European commitments".

Paris backed a tough approach last year by the west in support of mainstream rebels fighting the rule of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, including military strikes against the regime after its apparent use of chemical weapons. It was dismayed when both the UK and the US backed off from taking military action.

"The international community carries a very grave responsibility for what has happened in Syria," Mr Hollande said.

He said that had the west taken stronger action to force a transitional government in Syria "we would not have had the Islamic State [Isis]".

He added: "If, a year ago, we had had a sufficient reaction by the great powers to the use of chemical weapons, we would not have been faced by this terrible choice between a dictator and a terrorist group."