Iraq crisis could make US, Iran allies
The US and Iran have a mutual interest in stemming the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
With the call to arms today by Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, the crisis in Iraq threatens to become an even broader regional sectarian conflict. But it could also bring about unusual cooperation between the US and Iran, who have a mutual interest in stemming Sunni militants' lightning advance across Iraq this week.
In a statement read atÂ FridayÂ prayers, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called upon all able-bodied Iraqi Shiite men to fight, saying they were duty-bound â€śto bear arms and fight terroristsâ€ť in defense of their people and holy places. Those who died in the fight would be â€śhonoredâ€ť as martyrs, he said.Â
Within an hour volunteers were gathering and being sent to Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) clashed with the Iraqi Army this week. In February 2006, the destruction of theÂ Askari shrineÂ there ignited a vicious sectarian war in Iraq that left tens of thousands dead.
Even then, Ayatollah Sistani never issued such a call to arms. But the disintegration of Iraqi Army units,Â exposingÂ the ineptitude of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikiâ€™sÂ Shiite-firstÂ leadership and deepening Iraqâ€™s ethnic and religious divisions,Â makes this instance more grave for Iraqi Shiites.
The blitzkrieg by ISIS â€“Â backed by angry Sunni tribes disenfranchised by Mr. Malikiâ€™s rule, and even Saddam-era officers â€“Â has upended political calculations from Washington to Tehran, where the presidents of both the United States and Iran separately pledged support.
â€śTheyâ€™ve all been playing with fire, and now they have a bonfire. And I donâ€™t see any one of them having enough water to put it out,â€ť says Rouzbeh Parsi,Â an Iran-Iraq specialist now at Lund University in Sweden.Â
The result may be a â€śbizarreâ€ť situation in which the US and Iran find themselves on the same side, due to the acuteness of the crisis.
"If they want to save Iraq they are going to have to work together,â€ť says Mr. Parsi.
â€śThe US is not going to put any troops on the ground. When it comes to whatever troopsÂ areÂ on the ground, itâ€™s going to be the Iranians who are going to help out, to make sure [Iraqis] stay where they are supposed to stay, and shoot in the right direction,â€ť he says. But the USÂ will likely help with air strikes and intelligence, so â€śone way or another, [the US and Iran] are going to have to get in touch," Parsi adds.Â
â€śWe can work with the Americans to end the insurgency in the Middle East,â€ť a senior Iranian official told Reuters. â€śWe are very influential in Iraq, Syria and many other countries.â€ť
US, Iran make moves
The Pentagon today announced it was moving an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, although President Barack Obama said the US would not take military action without an Iraqi plan for national reconciliation.Â The State Department said today the US â€śis not talking to the Iranians about Iraq."
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of theÂ eliteÂ Qods Force branch of Iranâ€™s Revolutionary Guard, was reportedly in Baghdad in recent days, coordinating with Iraqi officials. The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran has already deployed two Qods Force units to Iraq, citing Iranian security sources.Â Iranian officials publicly denied those claims.Â Other reports from Iran suggest that Iranian drones have also been deployed.
ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani said the Sunni militants would march on the â€śfilth-riddenâ€ť shrine city of Karbala, and the â€śpolytheismâ€ť city of Najaf â€“Â both among the holiest sites in the world for Shiite believers â€“Â in order to â€śsettle our differencesâ€ť with Maliki.
The threat to Samarra and anti-Shiite rhetoric from ISIS comes as Shiites mark the birthday of the Shiite Messiah, the 12thÂ Imam called Mahdi.
Prior to Sistaniâ€™s call to arms today, influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr â€“Â whose Mahdi Army militia once fought US forces before it was disbanded â€“Â said a Shiite â€śpeace brigadeâ€ť should be formed to defend holy shrines.
The ISIS advanceÂ may have unified long-bickering Shiite factions in Iraq, many of them unhappy with Malikiâ€™sÂ rule. But it has also driven deeper the divisions between Shiites, disgruntled Sunni Arab tribes, and ethnic Kurds. With Sunni militias moving south toward Baghdad, and Shiite militias and volunteers moving north, it is not clear how this transformative week in Iraq will play out.
â€śUnifying the Shiites is easy, thatâ€™s not the art,â€ť says Parsi. â€śThe art lies is unifying Iraq. And so far they havenâ€™t managed to produce a politician who is capable of that.â€ťÂ
Militias â€ścan come into the fray and perhaps mobilize people to fight. But that was never a difficulty in Iraq â€“ there was always someone to raise a flagâ€¦and get a couple people to tag along with their Kalashnikovs,â€ť says Parsi.
â€śThe question now is, can any of these people present a picture that looks like co-existence afterwards?â€ť