‘Iraq can solve this matter, but if they ask for help, we will give it,’ says Rouhani

Iran is playing down the threat faced by Baghdad but says backup is at hand

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, called the Isis offensive “a very dangerous mistake” by the Iraqi militants. Photograph: Reuters

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, called the Isis offensive “a very dangerous mistake” by the Iraqi militants. Photograph: Reuters

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 01:00

Iran has reacted with relative calm to the offensive by the extremist Sunni Muslim group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq (Isis), also known as the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant.

President Hassan Rouhani called the offensive “a very dangerous mistake” by the militants. He and other Iranian officials predict that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s appeal to Iraqis to take up arms against Isis will lead to the defeat of the extremists.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has not requested Iranian assistance, nor has Iran sent Revolutionary Guards to Iraq, as reported by US media, Mr Rouhani said at a press conference marking the first anniversary of his election.

“We have very close and intimate relations with the government . . . I think Iraq can solve this matter, but if they ask for help, we will give it to them.”

Most of Iraq’s Shia leaders lived in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

A senior Iranian military intelligence source who travels frequently to Syria and Iraq said the Iraqi soldiers who surrendered without firing a shot in Mosul were from Sunni Muslim units. Some were Baathists; some simply saw no point in dying.

But a million Iraqi volunteers will answer Ayatollah Sistani’s call to jihad, the source said, adding that the 230,000- strong Iraqi army will take courage from the militia and rally to the cause. Ayatollah Sistani (83) was born in Iran and lives in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf.

“With all these people, what is the need for Iran to send Revolutionary Guards?” the source asked. He estimates that Isis has a total of between 40,000 and 50,000 men in Syria.

“They were fighting with the [rival, al-Qaeda affiliated] Nusra Front in [the Syrian border town of] Deir ez-Zoor until last Monday, when about 10,000 Isis fighters broke off and moved into Iraq,” he said.

The Isis militants were joined by Saddam-era Baathists and Sunni tribesmen of shifting allegiance, the source said, bringing their number in Iraq to 20,000 at most.

“Twenty thousand people cannot be a danger – not for Iran, and not for Iraq,” he said.

Military death Abu Omar al-Shishani, an Isis military leader of Chechin origin, was killed in Mosul late last week, the same source said.

Isis is comprised of westerners, Iraqi Baathists, Wahabis, Turks, Arabs and central Asians – all of them heavily infiltrated by intelligence services, the source said. “As we say in Persian, it is a strange animal: part-camel, part-cow and part-panther. The parts don’t go together.”

The Iranian intelligence source said a contest of wills between Iraq’s Shia leadership and the US was the real reason behind the fighting. “The Americans believe that Iran has too much influence in Iraq right now. This is the big game: America wants to put Maliki’s government under pressure.”

President Barack Obama and US media have criticised Maliki for not sharing power with Iraq’s Sunnis.

“Maliki just won an election,” the Iranian intelligence source noted. “Now America wants him to share power with other groups. Why should he? If he gives power to other groups, Iraq will have a weak central government. America wants Iraq to be weak, so they have to ask for US support.”

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