Iranian jets attack Isis in eastern Iraq
A US official late on Tuesday all but confirmed reports that Iran has conducted air strikes against Islamist militants in eastern Iraq in recent days, but declined to confirm whether Washington and Tehran had co-operated.
Military experts believe it is the first confirmation that Iran’s ageing air force has attacked the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, since the west began operations against the insurgency forces several months ago, news agencies reported.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters the US was not collaborating with Iran and that it was up to Iraq to ensure Tehran’s actions did not clash with those by the US and its allies.
Jane’s Defence Weekly, the defence publication, on Sunday identified what its experts described as an Iranian McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom captured in video footage by Al Jazeera television that day. The plane was spotted in the skies above the city of Saadiya, a crucial battlefront between Isis and Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
“I’ve seen the reports,” Mr Kirby said. “We have no indication that the reports are not true, that Iranian aircraft have conducted air strikes in the last several days against Isil targets in eastern Iraq.”
Marzieh Afkham, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, did not confirm the air strikes. But she said at a press conference on Wednesday that Iran’s policy had not changed with regard to “fighting against [extremist] takfiri groups and helping the Iraqi government” defeat Isis.
Washington and Tehran have had a fraught relationship since the Islamic revolution of 1979 but in recent months there has been speculation that ties may be improving as the two nations are drawn closer through their shared opposition to Isis.
Shia-ruled Tehran is also united with the Shia-led government in Baghdad against the Sunni insurgency that has seized swaths of territory in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Diyala, a volatile province that includes Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities, is among the most fiercely contested Iraqi battlegrounds. The mostly agricultural region abuts Iran and has historically been a key transit area for commerce and Iranian pilgrims making their way to Shia holy sites in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.
Mr Kirby said that US forces “have indications that [Iran] did indeed fly air strikes with F-4 Phantoms in the past several days”.
“We are flying missions over Iraq, we co-ordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” he said. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to deconflict that airspace.”
Nothing has changed about our policy of not co-ordinating military activity with the Iranians,” Mr Kirby said.
Asked if he thought the Iranian air strikes were helpful, the admiral suggested they could further anger Iraq’s Sunni minority, a source of Isis recruits. “We want nothing to be done that further inflames sectarian tensions in the country,” he said.
On Monday it emerged that Nato is preparing to join the campaign against Isis following discussions with senior Iraqi government officials in recent weeks.
Alliance officials have said they are ready to commit resources if there is a formal request by Haider Al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister.
Foreign ministers from Nato’s 28 member states are due to meet in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the fight against Isis, which leaders have said is likely to be protracted.