Mosul/Washington, June 16 (Reuters): The US said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in West Asia.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have routed Baghdad’s army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.
The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups who oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia.
Joint action between the US and regional Shia power Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Iran’s 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.
US secretary of state John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if the US could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”
As for air strikes: “They’re not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.”
The Pentagon said that while there might be discussions with Iran, there were no plans to coordinate military action with it.
Britain, Washington’s ally in the 2003 war that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, said it had reached out to Iran in recent days. A US official said meetings with Iran could come this week on the sidelines of international nuclear talks.
Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shia politicians who came to power in US-backed elections.
ISIS seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq’s Maliki and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shias heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.
Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam’s era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.
ISIM fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town today, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks, adding to an arsenal of US-provided armour they have seized from the disintegrating army.
Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.
“It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies,” said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby city of Falluja, largely held by insurgents since early this year.
Overnight, the fighters captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting yesterday, solidifying their grip on the north.