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United Arab Emirates, Key U.S. Ally in ISIS Effort, Disengaged in December

The United Arab Emirates, a crucial Arab ally in the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, suspended airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in December, citing fears for its pilots’ safety after a Jordanian pilot was captured and who the extremists said had been burned to death, United States officials said Tuesday.



The United Arab Emirates are demanding that the Pentagon improve its search-and-rescue efforts, including the use of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, in northern Iraq, closer to the battleground, instead of basing the missions in Kuwait, administration officials said. The country’s pilots will not rejoin the fight until the Ospreys, which take off and land like helicopters but fly like planes, are put in place in northern Iraq.



The United Arab Emirates notified the United States Central Command that they were suspending flights, administration officials said, after First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh of the Jordanian Air Force was captured when his plane went down near Raqqa, Syria. A senior American military official said Islamic State militants “grabbed” Lieutenant Kasasbeh “within just a few minutes.” He added, “There was no time for us to engage.”



But United Arab Emirates officials questioned the American military about whether rescue teams would have been able to reach Lieutenant Kasasbeh even if there had been more time to do so, administration officials said.



In a blunt exchange last week in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, asked Barbara Leaf, the new American ambassador, why Central Command, in his country’s view, had not put proper assets in northern Iraq for rescuing downed pilots, a senior administration official said.



“He let her have it over this,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. It was Ms. Leaf’s first courtesy call on the foreign minister.



The exchange followed a month of disputes between American military officials and their counterparts in the United Arab Emirates, who have also expressed concern that the United States has allowed Iran to play a growing role in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.



A spokesman with Central Command declined to comment.



The divide between the United States and the United Arab Emirates is significant because the country has been the United States’ most stalwart Arab ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The country, a collection of oil-rich principalities, conducted more missions in the beginning of the air war than any other member of the international coalition. Its collection of F-16s attacked the militants in northern Iraq and Syria from the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates.



The country was one of the first to join the coalition. In early September, even before President Obama had recruited the first members at a NATO summit meeting in Wales, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, issued a statement that his country stood ready to join the fight.



For the United States, keeping the United Arab Emirates on board is key; Mr. Obama has insisted that the United States will not fight the Islamic State without help from Sunni Arabs. The White House is keen to present the coalition as one that includes moderate countries in the region.



The relationship with the United Arab Emirates has become especially important as United States relations with other Muslim allies like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have grown tense. Such allies have defended their roles in the campaign despite criticism at home.



It was unclear Tuesday why the American military had not been able to put the requested rescue assets in northern Iraq. After the Islamic State released the video of what it said was the Jordanian pilot’s execution Tuesday, administration officials said Mr. Obama had ordered national security officials and the intelligence community to devote its resources to locating other hostages held by the Islamic State.



New York Times