|A Shia tribal fighter takes position outside the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, on Sunday. (AP)
Anbar, Iraq, June 22 (Reuters): Iran’s supreme leader accused the United States on Sunday of trying to retake control of Iraq by exploiting sectarian rivalries, as Sunni insurgents drove toward Baghdad from new strongholds along the Syrian border.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s condemnation of the US action in Iraq came three days after President Barack Obama offered to send 300 military advisers in response to pleas from Iraq’s government. It ran counter to speculation that old enemies Washington and Tehran might cooperate to defend their mutual ally in Baghdad after two weeks of swift territorial gains by Sunni Islamists.
On Sunday, militants overran a second frontier post on the Syrian border as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pursues the goal of its own caliphate straddling both countries.
“We are strongly opposed to US and other intervention in Iraq,” IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying. “We don’t approve of it as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition.”
Some Iraqi observers interpreted his remarks as a warning not to try to handpick any successor to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, amid speculation he may be pushed to quit over a crisis for which many in the West hold him responsible after eight years of the Shia-led government has alienated minority Sunnis.
Speaking in Cairo, secretary of state John Kerry said the US wanted the Iraqi people to find a leadership that would represent all the country’s communities — though he echoed Obama in saying it would not pick or choose those leaders.
“The US would like the Iraqi people to find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq, that is prepared to be inclusive and share power,” he said.
The Iranian and the US governments had seemed open to collaboration against the al Qaida offshoot ISIS, which is fighting both the US-backed, Shia-led government of Iraq and the Iran-backed President of Syria, whom Washington wants to see overthrown.
“American authorities are trying to portray this as a sectarian war, but what is happening in Iraq is not a war between Shias and Sunnis,” said Khamenei, who has the last word in the Islamic Republic’s Shia clerical administration.
Accusing Washington of using Sunni Islamists and followers of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, he added: “The US is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges.”
Tehran and Washington have been shocked by the lightning offensive, spearheaded by the ISIS and involving Sunni tribes and Saddam loyalists. It has seen swathes of northern and western Iraq fall, including the major city of Mosul on June 10.
The ISIS thrust east from a newly captured Iraqi-Syrian border post today, taking three towns in Iraq’s western Anbar province after seizing the frontier crossing near the town of al-Qaim yesterday, witnesses and security sources said.
They seized a second, al-Waleed, today.
The gains have helped the ISIS secure supply lines to Syria, where it has exploited the chaos of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad to seize territory. The radical Islamist faction is considered the most powerful force among Sunni armed groups who seized Falluja, just west of Baghdad, and took parts of Anbar’s capital Ramadi at the start of the year.
The fall of Qaim represented another step towards the realisation of the ISIS’s military goals, erasing a frontier drawn by colonial powers carving up the Ottoman empire a century ago.
The ISIS’s gains today included the towns of Rawa and Ana along the Euphrates river east of Qaim, as well as the town of Rutba further south on the main highway from Jordan to Baghdad.