As Iraq’s government attempts to reclaim territory seized by the extremist group Islamic State, it has accepted military aid from two rival powers, the United States and Iran. It is a difficult balancing act.
U.S. officials were troubled by the role of prominent Iranian advisors such as Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who was photographed supposedly drinking tea outside Tikrit at the start of the recent offensive on the hometown of the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. Suleimani, who commands the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was accused by the U.S. of directing attacks on its forces in Iraq a decade ago.
U.S. officials have also raised concern about Shiite Muslim militiamen, some of them backed by Iran, who made up the bulk of the fighting force in Tikrit and are expected to take a prominent role in an attempt to drive Islamic State from the city of Mosul.
Heeding a call from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, thousands joined paramilitary groups to fight the Sunni Arab extremists. Although the Shiite groups operate ostensibly under the control of the government, they retain much of the structure and character of existing militias. Human rights groups have accused some of retaliatory killings and of destroying the homes of Sunni civilians who were seen as siding with Islamic State, which is also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh.
In an interview with The Times, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jafari said his government would accept the help of any nation that does not threaten Iraqi sovereignty, but he maintained that such help would not include ground troops. Jafari, a Shiite, also insisted that the Shiite militias are not a sectarian force but rather a legitimate response to the crisis that befell Iraq when government troops defending Mosul collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s onslaught last summer.
Turning to other regional crises, Jafari was critical of the air campaign led by Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia, in Yemen and calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to be replaced. But he said such differences would not prevent Iraq from working with Sunni countries that have joined the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation. Jafari was speaking through an interpreter.
There has been concern in this country about Iran’s role in the campaign against Islamic State. Exactly what help are you receiving from Tehran?
We have no such concerns in Iraq. Iran is a neighboring country, and we share 1,400 kilometers [870 miles] of border. The danger that Iraq suffers from was imminent to Iran as well.
Geography and history and the cooperation between the two countries entitle Iran to support Iraq against this threat, and it came as part of a major cooperation effort from different countries, such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States. That does not mean by any means the presence of [foreign] ground forces in Iraq.
Kindly recall that after the fall of Mosul into the control of Daesh, the [U.S.-led] international coalition was not formed yet. So what would you expect us to do? Should we have waited for Daesh to occupy more Iraqi territory?
Any country that is ready to extend its hand to Iraq without affecting its sovereignty will be most welcome.
Do you hear similar concerns from Iran about the U.S. involvement in Iraq?
Just as the United States might have some concerns regarding Iran’s support, the Iranians as well have their own concerns regarding the European and the American support. Our mission is to manage and run the presence of all these advisors on the ground in a way that maintains our sovereignty.
Would it be easier for you if the United States and Iran could reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program?
You are absolutely right. Any tension between world countries is a source of concern for us, especially when one of these countries shares a border with Iraq. Accomplishing a deal between the United States and Iran will reflect positively on the whole region.
From what you hear, do you think such a deal is likely to happen?
Such a deal is quite probable and the direct dialogue between Iran and the United States is a very positive step for the two countries.
Islamic State successfully exploited the disenchantment felt by many Sunnis with what they regarded as a sectarian government in Baghdad. What is the government doing about that?
I don’t know whom you should believe. Should you believe a group of terrorists who kill innocent people and shed the blood of women and children, or should you consider the position of an elected Iraqi government that reflects its community. As you know, the president of Iraq is a Sunni Kurdish citizen. The president of the parliament is a Sunni Arab, and the prime minister is Shiite.
Do you know that the Iraqi defense minister is Sunni Arab as well? I am well aware that some media agencies try to deviate from the truth, but the fact will always remain that Iraq is a country of different components that are reflected in the different branches of power.
There have been complaints from human rights organizations that after Islamic State was pushed out of Tikrit and other cities, some Iran-backed militias conducted reprisal attacks or destroyed homes. If this is happening, how do you convince people in those areas to trust the central government?
We do not have any militias that are independent from the Iraqi armed forces.
Regarding any violations of human rights, we have not identified a major phenomenon of such violations. On the contrary, the public volunteers have been so courageous. They started defending these cities before the formation of the current coalition, and they sacrificed their own souls.
If there are some individual incidents, they cannot be regarded as a generalized case. As far as I am aware, those fighters are committed and they have principles and they always have instructions from the government to respect the inhabitants of the cities they liberate.
What will happen to the militias, if and when Islamic State is defeated?
The military groups that joined the fight in Iraq came during exceptional circumstances, after the second-largest city in Iraq was occupied and the grand Islamic cleric in Iraq and all other religious leaders combined their efforts to increase the capacity and the size of the Iraqi armed forces. Of course, after this threat is gone, the level and the size of these forces will be reconsidered.
Prime Minister Haider Abadi has spoken of his wish to improve relations with Iraq’s neighbors. Both you and he have traveled extensively in the region. How were you received on these visits?
This foreign policy Iraq follows [is aimed at] establishing diplomatic relations with all the countries based on shared interests and also on shared threats. Iraq and all the other countries face the threat of Daesh, and all of us must be unified to confront this threat. We have gotten the appropriate response from these countries that we have visited.
Has the war in Yemen changed that?
We have frankly declared our position that we are against the interference of any country in the affairs of other countries, especially if this interference takes a military form. But when we disagree with a country, this does not mean that we will break our relations with that country. And we are working to replace the military solution [in Yemen] with peaceful means, such as dialogue and negotiations.
The Saudis argue that Houthi rebels drove out an elected president and were about to take over the country. And they see this as an attempt by Iran to put a client militia in power in their backyard.
I define the crisis in Yemen as a Yemeni problem. It’s quite different from the problem in Iraq. Those who are present and fighting in Iraq belong to 62 countries. So it was quite normal to respond to this great number of foreign fighters by seeking international assistance without having a [foreign] presence on the ground.
What is happening in Yemen now is different. Houthis are Yemeni people. What do they have to do with Iran? Do they have shared geography? I find it quite strange to listen to this.
Is Syria an obstacle for Iraq’s relations with the United States and with Sunni-led countries in the region?
Iraq makes its foreign relations with other countries in an independent way and stays away from the policies of axes and international and regional polarization.
If asked, Iraq can play the role of mediator. I can give you an example. Before the international coalition struck a couple of military targets of Daesh inside Syrian territory, Secretary [of State John F.] Kerry asked me to deliver a message to the Syrians. I wanted to know the content of this message, and Secretary Kerry told me that we would like to launch airstrikes against Daesh bases inside Syrian territory. After I made sure that no heavily populated civilian areas would be targeted, that it would be limited to Daesh bases, I agreed to deliver this message to the Syrians.
There are those who argue that Islamic State would not have grown as strong as it did if the U.S. and its allies had acted more forcefully to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.
These countries have tried the military solution in Syria for five years. What are the results? The Syrian regime is still there. The Syrian people still sacrifice every day.
The Syrians are between two fires, the fire of Daesh and the fire of the military armed forces of Syria. And an opportunity was given to Daesh to extend from Syria to inside Iraq.
I believe that those countries should concentrate all of their efforts against the most dangerous enemy at this time. Distracting efforts in this region will serve the most dangerous enemy, which is Daesh.
What do you think of the proposal that emerged at the Arab League meeting in Cairo in March for a joint force to counter regional security threats?
We have clearly stated our position that such a proposal is right in principle, but it came in a speedy and hasty way. I advised them to take a lesson from the European Union and the formation of the NATO alliance, where any threat against a European country is considered a threat against all European countries. But we were surprised, because this proposal came right before the Arab summit and was immediately followed by the military intervention in Yemen, although we did not have any clue about such a proposal.
Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.