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Kerry scours Mideast for aid in fight against Islamic State

CAIRO — Secretary of State John Kerry received broad assurances but no commitments from Egypt on Saturday as he continued his tour of the Middle East to try to assemble a coalition behind an American campaign against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

The Obama administration is keen to enlist material support from regional powers with Sunni Muslim majorities such as Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to avoid the impression that the United States is intervening in a sectarian war on behalf of the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government against its opponents in the Sunni minority.

Egypt is not expected to make an important military contribution. Rather, American officials want Cairo to use its clout as the traditional capital of Sunni Islam — and home to the Al Azhar center of Sunni scholarship — to mobilize public opinion in the Arab world against the Islamic State.

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“As an intellectual and cultural capital of the Muslim world, Egypt has a critical role to play,” Kerry said.

In Baghdad on Saturday, Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, took a small step toward alleviating the deep alienation that has made some in the Sunni Muslim minority receptive to the Islamic State.

Abadi said he had ordered the Iraqi security forces to stop shelling civilian communities under the control of the militants. Senior Iraqi officials have acknowledged in recent days that shelling by their armed forces has killed civilians in the course of the battle against the militants.

Together, the professions of good intentions in Baghdad and Cairo underscored the long and potentially lonely road ahead for the Obama administration as it attempts to roll back and dismantle the Islamic State.

There have been only token steps so far by Iraq’s government to win back the trust of the Sunni minority and only token commitments of support from regional allies such as Egypt and Turkey.

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After meeting with Kerry in Cairo, Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, declared at a joint news conference that “Egypt believes it is very important for the world to come together to fight this extremism.”

But Egyptian officials declined to specify what help they would provide in the campaign against the Islamic State, and Shoukry made it clear that he also had in mind fighting Islamist militants at home and in neighboring Libya.

Kerry has already visited Baghdad, Amman, Jordan, and Ankara, Turkey, and he attended an emergency meeting of regional governments in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, in his drive to mobilize support for a campaign against the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to allow the training of Syrian rebel forces opposed to the Islamic State at bases in its territory, but no country in the region has offered concrete military support.

Egyptian state media and Islamist militants based in the Sinai Peninsula have both recently raised alarms that the Islamic State might be influencing Egyptian militant groups, too.

After the Islamic State made headlines around the world for beheading American hostages, militants in Sinai began carrying out beheadings as well, and Egyptian state media seized on the atrocities to underscore that the government’s fight to consolidate its authority at home was part of the same fight as the US battle with the Islamic State.

A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said there were anecdotal accounts that volunteers who had fought with the Islamic State later provided tactical advice to the main Egyptian militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, while stopping in the Sinai Peninsula on their way back to their homes in Egypt and North Africa.

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“They stop off and sort of lend their professional skills,” said the State Department official, who could not be identified under the agency’s rules for briefing reporters. “These terrorist groups are beginning to cooperate.”

While in Cairo, Kerry met with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, Shoukry, and Nabil al-Araby, the secretary-general of the Arab League.

During a visit in July, Kerry sought to strengthen relations with Sissi by declaring that he was confident that the United States would soon restore military aid it had suspended after Egypt’s military ousted President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and waged a bloody crackdown on his Islamist supporters.