The U.S. signaled it’s ready to talk with Iran about how to deal with the crisis in Iraq, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s forces battle an offensive by Sunni Muslim militants that threatens to split apart the country.
U.S. and Iranian officials spoke briefly on Iraq in an initial conversation on the sidelines of talks in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program, according to a U.S. State Department official who commented on condition of anonymity.
“We’re open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and the sovereignty of Iraq and the ability of the government to reform,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview yesterday with Yahoo! News.
The U.S. and Iran have been on opposite sides of most Middle Eastern conflicts for decades. They are now finding a common interest in thwarting the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an al-Qaeda offshoot that has seized parts of northern Iraq in the past week, with support from some local leaders in the wider community of Iraqi Sunnis who resent al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
The U.S. is weighing military intervention against the group in Iraq, President Barack Obama said last week. That may include sending a small number of special forces soldiers, who would be involved in training though not in direct combat, the Associated Press reported, citing unidentified U.S. officials. The Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Gulf, and the Navy said yesterday it sent another ship with 550 Marines.
Obama planned to meet with his national security advisers at the White House “to get an update on the thinking of individual members of his team as they have been working over the weekend to prepare some options,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The mounting violence threatens to plunge one of the world’s largest oil producers into a sectarian civil war like the one raging in neighboring Syria. Markets have been rattled by the conflict. Brent crude last week posted its biggest increase in almost a year, while Middle Eastern stocks have plunged.
The militants captured Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, a week ago. Uncorroborated reports that they executed 1,700 people, mostly soldiers from the Iraqi army, have surfaced on jihadist forums and other social-media sites.
ISIL came to prominence with its growing role among the opposition groups fighting to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally. In that conflict the U.S. supports the rebel side, and it came close to launching air strikes against Assad last year. At the same time, the U.S. has become concerned about the growing role played by Islamist militants such as ISIL.
Brent for August settlement gained 48 cents to end at 112.94 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. West Texas Intermediate for July delivery fell 33 cents to $106.58 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The U.S. paved the way for al-Maliki’s rise to power, at the head of Iraq’s first ever Shiite-led government, by invading the country to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, also backs al-Maliki. Moreover, U.S.-Iranian ties have thawed in the past year as the longtime rivals made some progress talks on curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
Yet it’s not clear whether the U.S. and Iran will agree on how to act in Iraq, even if their goals overlap.
Iran is “strongly against U.S. military intervention in Iraq,” said Marzieh Afkham, a spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the goal would be “encouraging Iraq’s leadership to pursue an inclusive diplomatic agenda.” At the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a spokesman, said that “there is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activities between the United States and Iraq.”
Al-Maliki’s government has been criticized for alienating Iraq’s minority Sunnis. There are signs that local Sunni tribes and other groups helped ISIL to gain control of Mosul and surrounding areas as Iraq’s mostly Shiite army fled.
Regardless of the Baghdad government’s failings, “the bottom line is that this terrorist entity cannot be allowed to run roughshod over the express desires of the people of Iraq,” Kerry said. He said he didn’t think Obama will “just sit by.”
Al-Maliki’s party retained its position as the largest bloc in parliament in April 30 elections and is seeking to form a new coalition. His forces have counter-attacked against the insurgents and say they have regained some ground.
There were conflicting reports of the latest fighting, especially from the town of Tal Afar, between Mosul and the Syrian border, which was the site of a victory by combined U.S. and Iraqi forces against Sunni insurgents in 2005. ISIL gunmen have captured most of the town, according to Jabar Yawar, a spokesman for Kurdish forces positioned nearby. State-run Iraqiya TV said the army is nearing victory there.
Shiite leaders in Iraq have called on their supporters to take up arms in the fight against ISIL, increasing the risk of a wider sectarian conflict.
Iranian forces are also helping the army, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Discussing potential co-operation with Iran, Kerry said “we need to go step-by-step.”
“We are open to any constructive process that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country, and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart,” he said.
The U.S. has been reducing the staff at its embassy in Baghdad while bolstering security.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said “approximately 275 U.S. Armed Forces personnel are deploying to Iraq to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.” The force is “equipped for combat,” he said.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com Ben Holland, Larry Liebert