An Iraqi soldier fires a machine gun during clashes with ISIS militants near Baghdad on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Brussels, June 25: Iran is flying unarmed surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed a unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
The secret Iranian programs are part of a broader effort by Tehran to gather intelligence and help Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government in its struggle against Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, has paid at least two visits to Iraq to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. And Iran has deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilise more than 2,000 Iraqi Shia militia members from the country’s south, American officials said.
Iranian transport planes have also been making two daily flights of military equipment and supplies to Baghdad — 70 tons per flight — for Iraqi security forces.
“It’s a substantial amount,” said an American official, who declined to be identified because he was discussing classified reports. “It’s not necessarily heavy weaponry but it not just light arms and ammunition.”
The Iranian moves come as the US is deploying the first of as many as 300 military advisers to assess Iraqi forces and to try to stabilise the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
The American and Iranian military moves are not coordinated, American officials said. Even though the US and Iran both oppose the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, they are still competing for influence in Iraq and are backing opposing sides in the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
“The Iranians are playing in a big way in Iraq,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
The security crisis in Iraq was one of the topics in secretary of state John Kerry’s meetings with allied officials who have gathered here for a meeting of Nato foreign ministers on Ukraine and other issues. Last night, Kerry reviewed a number of pressing issues with Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief for the EU, including Ukraine and “the grave security situation on the ground in Iraq”, Jen Psaki, the state department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The Obama administration has sought to open a dialogue with Iran on the Iraq crisis. William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, met briefly last week with an Iranian diplomat at the margins of the negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear programme.
But western officials say there appear to be divisions between the Iranian foreign ministry, which may be open to some degree of cooperation, and Gen. Suleimani, who was the mastermind of Iran’s strategy in Iraq when Iraqi Shia militias trained by Iran attacked American troops there with powerful explosive devices supplied by Tehran.
The general is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad.
“Iran has many different power centres and different elements of Iran are sending different messages and doing different things,” a senior state department official told reporters on Sunday. “They are definitely extremely interested in what’s happening here, to say the least.”
The US has increased its manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq since ISIS swept across the north of the country, and is now flying about 30 to 35 missions a day.
The American flights include piloted aircraft, such as F-18s and P-3 surveillance planes, as well as drones.
Iran has mounted a parallel effort, according to American officials. Iran has set up a special control centre at Al Rashid airfield in Baghdad, and is flying its own small fleet of Ababil surveillance drones over Iraq, said one American official.
An Iranian signals intelligence unit has been deployed at the same airfield to intercept electronic communications between ISIS fighters and commanders, said a second American official.