‘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.”

US military doctrine no longer allows it to wage big, costly wars in which Americans die, the Iranian source continued, so the US manipulates smaller countries and factions. Isis and rebel groups in Syria fight from gun-mounted Toyota pick-up trucks, he noted. “The trucks are shipped from Dubai. The Americans watch all this with their satellites and they don’t stop it. Why?”

The US has despatched an aircraft carrier to the region, and Obama says he will act against Isis, but will not deploy troops. Asked whether Iran would co-operate with Washington, Rouhani replied: “All countries need to join hands against terrorism. No one else has entered this arena yet. Any time the US enters the fight against terrorism, then we will think about it.”

Isis’s militants in Iraq will be killed or scattered, the intelligence source predicted. Survivors will retreat to Isis’s stronghold in eastern Syria, where they and the Nusra Front will continue to wear each other down. “All this is to President Bashar al-Assad’s advantage,” he noted. “Over the next three months, the Syrian army will clear out central Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean coast, and from Aleppo south to Damascus.”

US blame

Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a political science professor at Tehran University who is close to the Iranian government, also laid blame for the violence in Iraq with the US. “The US supported Saddam Hussein. Then they destroyed Saddam Hussein and Iraq and left it with a weak central government. The US and Europe closed their eyes to the export of extremism by Saudi Arabia.”

A few decades ago, the extremist Sunni Muslim doctrine known as Takfirism was dominant nowhere in the Islamic world, Marandi continued. “Now it is everywhere. Boko Haram. The Taliban. Chechnya. These ideologies come from Wahabism. We’ve seen it with the rise of Salafism in Egypt. The Takfiris are playing a dangerous role in Libya, creating problems in Mali. Even in Britain, the books and mosques are coming from Saudi Arabia. The problem isn’t between Sunni and Shia; it’s Saudi-instigated Takfirism. These are the people who carried out 9/11.”

Role of drones

Washington and Tehran appear to be on the same side in Iraq at the moment, Marandi admitted. The US might use drones to attack Isis.

“That would be like throwing blankets on a fire, while their Saudi friends fly in with petrol tankers . . . The view from Tehran is that this is something the US is responsible for, because they and the Europeans allow the Saudis to export this sort of extremism.”

Marandi noted that satellite stations funded by (Sunni) Gulf states are fanning hatred of the Shia. More recently, Shia stations that are hostile to Iran have begun broadcasting anti-Sunni rhetoric from the US, he says.

“I’m not saying the US is trying to start a Sunni-Shia war, but . . .”

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