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Middle east

US and Iran find common enemy in jihadist group

© Photo: AFP

Text by Marc DAOU

Latest update : 2014-01-07

In a rare foreign policy alignment, the US and Iran are both supporting Iraq's prime minister against a group of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who have been leading an insurrection in parts of Iraq and Syria.

It’s rare that Washington and Tehran are on the same wavelength.

But the US and Iran are in agreement when it comes to Iraq: on Sunday, the two countries both said they would support Iraqi authorities faced with an insurrection led in large part by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists.

The group, which is also active in Syria, has become increasingly active in recent months – as illustrated when it took control of parts of the key Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi last week.

Quoted by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Mohammad Hejazi, a top Iranian army commander, declared that his country was ready to supply Iraq with “military equipment or consultations,” though he added that he did not think that the deployment of Iranian troops would be necessary.

Situation is 'dire'

US Secretary of State John Kerry essentially echoed that position at a press conference in Jerusalem. Describing the situation as “extremely dire”, he referred to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as “the most dangerous players in that region” and noted that the US would “stand with the government of Iraq”. However, like Hejazi in Iran, Kerry also specified: “We’re not contemplating putting boots on the ground.”

Iran and the US are crucial sources of support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is planning a major counterattack against the jihadist group in Fallujah.

At the same time, their support risks fueling the resentment of Sunnis in Iraq (once dominant, despite their minority status, under Saddam Hussein), who say they are discriminated against and marginalised by the Shiite authorities in power both in Iraq and Iran. Sunni anger could benefit the jihadists, who “capitalise on anti-government sentiment and on divergences between tribes in order to recruit new members”, Myriam Benraad, an Iraq specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told FRANCE 24.

US policy criticised

The latest crisis in Iraq – which has emerged from a combination of explosive sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Lebanon, and between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia – has brought the failure of the US-led intervention in the country back into the spotlight. Ironically, Fallujah and Ramadi, the Sunni bastions that fell to the jihadists last week, are the very cities that US troops struggled to stabilise in 2004 – and where they suffered their heaviest losses since the Vietnam War.

US President Barack Obama has recently been criticised by Republicans for what they say is his role in the current crisis: ordering and overseeing a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 as al-Maliki settled into power and sought closer ties with Iran.

Influential Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham slammed the White House in a statement. “While many Iraqis are responsible for this strategic disaster, the [US] administration cannot escape its share of the blame. When President Obama withdrew all US forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America's enemies and would emerge as a threat to US national security interests,” the statement read. “Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.”

Date created : 2014-01-06

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