IRBIL, IRAQ — Last week, Sunni militants led by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant steamrolled through parts of northern Iraq, seizing Mosul, Tikrit and other cities. This week, they’ve met stiffer resistance, which some experts call an indication that Iraq’s demoralized army is getting new help from its neighbor, Iran.
And, these observers say, the insurgency threatening to unravel Iraq is prompting a startling realignment of interests between the U.S. and Iran, at least in the short term.
Iran’s growing role in the Iraqi crisis has drawn mixed reactions.
Fighters from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) likely already are in action, according to Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who monitors jihadist and Shiite social media sites.
Facebook pages with links to Iran’s revolutionary guards claim that Shiite fighters from Iran have been deployed in “defense of Samarra,” an Iraqi city that is home to a major Shia shrine threatened by the jihadists, Smyth said. Iranian websites also indicate the guards may have produced their first “martyr,” Ali Reza Moshajari, who reportedly was killed Saturday.
Commanders here in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq say that they suspect several hundred Iranian guardsmen already are in Iraq and that Iranian intelligence is likely assisting Syrian warplanes in airstrikes. Last weekend, two were aimed at ISIL convoys.
The Kurdish commanders also claim the militants’ occupation of Mosul and Tikrit is paper-thin. They say many of those who led the assault on Mosul for ISIL – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS – have been shifted to stage hit-and-run attacks on towns in the Tigris valley north of Baghdad.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city. Tikrit is the hometown of the late, deposed leader, Saddam Hussein.
U.S. and Iran share interest
U.S. officials acknowledge that Tehran and Washington have a common interest in shoring up the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview Monday with Yahoo! News, said the Obama administration would “not rule out anything that would be constructive.”
In Vienna, where representatives of the United States and several other countries have been meeting with their Iranian counterparts to talk about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, U.S. officials said participants had discussed the Iraq crisis but had ruled out military cooperation.
Iranian commander consulted
Maliki, frustrated with leaders of the demoralized Iraqi military, reportedly has turned to a top Iranian commander for some advice.
Maliki met Monday in Baghdad with the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani. Kurdish sources say the general is drafting a coordination strategy for the Iraqi military.
On Tuesday, the prime minister dismissed four of Iraq’s military leaders for failing to perform their “national duty,” according to a statement read on state TV.
Iranian commanders have proved crucial to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They got involved in the past year, backing up fighters from Tehran’s ally, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant Shia movement. Since then, the Syrian government has scored some notable battlefield gains.
‘Recipe for disaster’
Some American analysts argue that U.S. collaboration with Iran could have serious consequences.
“Inviting Iran to help stabilize Iraq is a recipe for disaster,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
He said Iran shouldn’t be a desirable partner for the U.S.
“It's also important to remember that ISIS's rise is directly tied to Iran's direct support to the Assad regime,” Schanzer said. “Iran dispatched the IRGC and Hezbollah to fight ISIS and others in Syria, which has only increased the fervor of the Sunni jihadi factions. Do we expect this not to happen in Iraq?”
Some Sunni Muslims who fled Mosul for a sunbaked refugee camp on the outskirts of Erbil expressed concern about their own government’s actions.
“I left Mosul not because of the jihadists,” said Raghdad, who gave a single name. “They were OK with us. My worry was Maliki will soon start bombing Mosul. I am scared of warplanes.”
In the dusty camp of blue tents, other Sunni Muslims had harsh words for the Iraqi leader, arguing he had prompted the militants’ rise by pursuing a Shia-dominated agenda.
Maliki defended his position Tuesday, rejecting calls inside Iraq and from the West to reach out to Sunnis.
Instead, he blamed Saudi Arabia for much of the uprising, saying the Persian Gulf’s main Sunni power bears responsibility because it has been funding Sunni militant rebels in neighboring Syria.
"We hold them responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that — which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites," the Iraqi government said in a statement.
Saudi officials deny the kingdom has channeled funds to ISIL.
Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.