U.S. on same side as Iran on Iraq battlefield


  U.S. officials are loath to acknowledge that they are on the same side of the Iraqi battlefield as Shiite-dominated Iran, the United States’ 35-year adversary and the archenemy of a pair of staunch U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Los Angeles Times
September 16, 2014
By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell


  In an isolated corner of northeastern Iraq, a foreign power has been a crucial contributor in a little-noticed front against the Islamic State — and it’s not the United States.

  At his office here, Mala Bakhtiar, military supervisor of the Kurdish peshmerga forces and a local politician, spoke openly of comprehensive Iranian involvement in logistics, intelligence-sharing and provision of military equipment to Kurdish troops.

  “They gave us rockets, cannons, maps,” a grateful Bakhtiar said of the Iranians, gesturing at the large-scale maps competing for wall space. “We needed these things badly.”

  The Kurdish leader also confirmed the presence of consultants from the Pasdaran, also known as the Revolutionary Guard — who, he said, “were very helpful” as advisers in the ongoing battle to dislodge the Sunni extremists from the nearby strategic town of Jalawla and vicinity.

  U.S. officials are loath to acknowledge that they are on the same side of the Iraqi battlefield as Shiite-dominated Iran, the United States’ 35-year adversary and the archenemy of a pair of staunch U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

  Iran, which shares a 1,000-mile border with Iraq, has pointedly not been asked to join the new global alliance the Obama administration is building to counter the Islamic State. And Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that Iran’s presence “would not be appropriate” at a global security conference, which began Monday in Paris.

  But denial cannot trump reality on the ground in Shiite-run Iraq, where Iran is indisputably a major player. Tehran already was a formidable presence before the first U.S. airstrikes targeting Sunni extremist positions in northern Iraq last month. It was Iranian-backed Shiite militias that helped the ill-prepared Iraqi military thwart the extremists’ rampage toward Baghdad in June and July, blunting the rebels’ advance.

  Iran has moved quickly to assist both the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga forces here in the north.

  “We resorted to any group that would help,” the avuncular, mustachioed Bakhtiar explained.

  “Iraq is now a stage for intervention from all countries of the world,” added Bakhtiar, also a leading figure with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of the two leading political parties in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

  Many here question whether the Islamic State poses any kind of direct danger to the United States. Unlike al-Qaida, which severed ties to the group early this year, Islamic State has not proclaimed a global militant agenda, focusing instead on consolidating its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in the Middle East.

  But there is no doubt that the hard-line Sunni Muslim faction is a threat to Shiite Iran, which fears radicalization of its own restive Sunni minorities in ethnic Baluch and Kurdish regions. The extremists view Shiites and spinoff sects, such as the Alawites who run Syria’s government, as infidels. Islamic State has slaughtered hundreds, possibly thousands, of them.

  “Iran cannot afford to neglect the security and stability of Iraq,” said Nader Karimi Juni, an independent analyst in Tehran. “They hate Shiites as apostates.”

  The Iraqi town of Jalawla, in the hands of the Islamic State since mid-August, is less than 20 miles from the Iranian border and close to a major crossing between the two countries.

  This sliver of Iraq, bisected by the Diyala River and its tributaries, is part of embattled Diyala province, an ethnically and religiously mixed area that is one of the major fronts in the campaign against the Islamic State. Diyala was also a critical stronghold for al-Qaida-linked rebels during the U.S. occupation of Iraq that ended in 2011.

  Today, Diyala is roughly divided between the forces of the Islamic State, the Iraqi government and the peshmerga, who filled the security void when Iraqi government forces fell back in June as the Sunni extremists advanced. The extremists pushed forward again in early August, forcing a peshmerga retreat.

  After more than a month of fighting, Kurdish commanders say Islamic State insurgents have been cornered in the largely Sunni towns of Saadiya and Jalawla. The front line has been relatively static in recent weeks.

  The Kurdish military blueprint is simple enough: Roll back the Islamic State in the Kurdish areas, while Iraqi pro-government forces, including Shiite paramilitary groups, squeeze them from the south in a pincer maneuver.

  Here again, Iran’s influence is crucial; the main Iraqi Shiite militia coordinating with the Iraqi forces to the south is the Badr Brigade, which has a “long history of being trained by Iran,” noted Hamid Reza Taraghi, a Tehran-based analyst.

  “When they (the Badr Brigade) require any assistance, we give it to them,” Taraghi said from Tehran.

  With the peshmerga poised to advance, Kurdish authorities are still hopeful that U.S. military support will materialize, especially in light of the expanded American mission outlined by President Obama last week in his nationally televised address.

  “I would like to tell them to hurry up,” Bakhtiar said of the White House. “We await them with great anticipation.”