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US and Iranian Involvement in Iraq Is Escalating Again

As the US contemplates sending money to militants, Iran may be ready to support a change in leadership in Iraq.

by John Beck
Jun 27 2014, 6:55pm

Image via AP/Sebastian Backhaus

Foreign involvement in the Iraq crisis has escalated again today as the US requested money to arm rebels fighting the hardline Sunni militants controlling parts of Syria and Iraq, and reports indicated that the country's vital ally Iran may support a change in leadership. Meanwhile, evidence of summary execution by both government forces and insurgents is mounting, as sectarian violence appears to be spiraling further out of control.

US President Barack Obama asked Congress for $500 million on Thursday to train and arm moderate Syrian opposition groups, which as well as being opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have also been fighting the too-extreme-even-for-al Qaeda Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the north of the country for some time. ISIS lead the Sunni militants, who have seized large swaths of Iraq over the past two weeks.

US National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden commented that military aid would help Syrians battle Assad's forces as well as hardline militants. "...this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL [synonymous with ISIS] who find safe-haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels," she said in a statement. Hayden went on to reaffirm prior commitments that US troops would not see service in Syria.

The issue is complicated by remarks made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday in which he appeared to align himself with the Syrian government after its air force struck militant positions at a border crossing between the two countries.

The US, along with much of the international community, is deeply opposed to Assad's government, and him coming out in support of Maliki's beleaguered government is the latest potential alliance in a crisis that has already created some unexpected and uneasy bedfellows.

Not least of these are the US and its longtime foe Iran, both of which share a mutual ally in Iraq. Both countries have deployed military personnel to provide support of various kinds to government forces. There had even been speculation of cooperation between the two.

More: Here's Who Is Fighting in Iraq and Why

However, support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from his Shiite allies in Tehran is wavering, The Associated Press reported. Sources told AP that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani thinks Maliki should stand down to avoid Iraq splitting into three, although Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would like to see him remain in his post. High-ranking Iranian general Ghasem Soleimani recently returned home after meetings with Shiite politicians with a list of possible alternative candidates for Maliki's position, the sources added, and is expected back in Baghdad soon to inform Iraqi politicians of Iran's favorite prime ministerial candidate.

Pressure is growing to form a new government. Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, today urged the country's different political blocs to agree on the next prime minister, parliament speaker, and president before parliament meets on July 1. In a speech read by his aid at a shrine in Karbala, Sistanti said: "What is required of the political blocs is to agree on the three presidencies [PM, speaker and president] within the remaining days to this date," the AP reported. Sistani has previously called for a new parliament to be formed and also told his followers to fight ISIS.

Meanwhile, Iraq is looking more divided than ever. The leader of Iraqi Kurdistan Massud Barzani today said that Kurds would not relinquish power over the oil-rich and ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk, as well as other towns, which are currently being held and defended by Kurdish fighters. Kirkuk is part of an area of land that Iraqi Kurds wish to absorb into their autonomous enclave in the north of the country.

"We have been patient for 10 years with the federal government to solve the problems of these [disputed] areas," Barzani said, speaking at a a news conference held with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, AFP reported. "There were Iraqi forces in these areas, and then there was a security vacuum, and peshmerga forces went to fill this vacuum."

If, or when ISIS are kicked out of northern Iraq, however, the central government in Baghdad is unlikely to voluntarily give up control of Kirkuk. Senior Kurdish officials previously told VICE News that they would welcome Iraqi armed forces back to the city.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today that analysis of photographs and satellite imagery strongly indicate that ISIS killed between 160 and 190 men in Tikrit after seizing the city on June 11. ISIS claimed to have "exterminated" 1,700 Shiite soldier on June 12 and subsequently posted photographs apparently showing the executed men.

“The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation,” HRW emergencies director Peter Bouckaert said. “ISIS apparently executed at the very least 160 people in Tikrit.”

HRW said that the real number of victims could be much higher, but that difficulty in accessing the area and locating bodies made a full investigation impossible.

Summary executions may be taking place on both sides. On Monday a number of prisoners died while being transferred to a Baghdad jail. Officials said the convoy transporting the prisoners was attacked by militants and that 10 were killed in the resultant firefight. However, sources told Reuters that all 69 were killed by police. Just a few days ago, 44 prisoners were killed in Baquba, north of Baghdad. Again, versions of events differed.

The killings may be taking place to avoid the risk of militants freeing them to fight again — ISIS has targeted prisons where its fighters have been held in the past, However, they hark back to a cycle of brutal sectarian violence which took place in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. This time, without the presence of the US military, things could get even worse.

VICE News is with Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting to maintain control over their land in rapidly unraveling Iraq. Watch the VICE News dispatch.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JMBeck