14 June 2014
Last updated at 11:41
Iran is ready to assist the Iraqi government in its battle against extremist Sunni insurgents, President Hassan Rouhani has said.
But he denied Iran had sent troops into Iraq to help bolster Iraqi government forces’ defences.
The insurgents – from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – have seized the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and are moving closer to Baghdad.
They regard Iraq’s Shia majority as “infidels”.
Iran has close ties with the Shia-dominated Iraqi leadership which came to power after the toppling of President Saddam Hussein, whose powerbase was the country’s Sunni minority.
ISIS is a hardline Islamist militant group that grew during the US-led occupation and is one of several jihadist militias fighting the rule of Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.
“If the Iraqi government asks us for help, we may provide any assistance the Iraqi nation would like us to provide in the fight against terrorism,” said President Rouhani at a news conference to mark the first anniversary of his victory in Shia Iran’s presidential election.
“However, the engagement of Iranian forces has not been discussed. Providing help and being engaged in operations are different.”
Answering a question from the BBC, he said that so far the Iraqi government had not requested help from Iran.
President Rouhani did not completely rule out co-operating with Iran’s traditional foe the United States in combating ISIS: “We can think about if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.”
According to unnamed sources quoted by both the the Wall Street Journal and CNN, Iran has already sent several elite units of its Revolutionary Guard to help Iraq, but Iranian officials have denied this.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is regarded as a moderate among his country’s leaders, but working with the US in Iraq is seen as very unlikely
Thousands of Shias are reported to have volunteered to help halt the advance of ISIS
Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has issued a call to arms to fellow Shias.
There are reports that thousands have already joined Shia militias, which could play a crucial role in the defence of Baghdad, says the BBC’s Richard Galpin who is in the city.
The capital Baghdad is a tense place following the reverses for Iraqi government forces
After taking Mosul late on Monday, and then Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the Sunni militants have pressed south into the ethnically divided Diyala province.
On Friday, they battled Shia fighters near Muqdadiya, just 80km from Baghdad’s city limits.
Reinforcements from both the Iraqi army and Shia militias have arrived in the city of Samarra, where fighters loyal to ISIS are trying to enter from the north.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Samarra on Saturday.
“Samarra will not be the last line of defence, but a gathering point and launchpad,” he insisted during an address to army officers in the city that was broadcast by Iraqi TV.
“Within the coming hours, all the volunteers will arrive to support the security forces in their war against the gangs of ISIS. This is the beginning of the end of them.”
‘Threat to America’
US President Barack Obama has said he will take several days to decide what action to take over Iraq, but that no US troops will be deployed there.
Any US involvement “has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences”, he said.
Mr Obama told reporters that ISIS represented a danger not just to Iraq and its people but that “it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well”.
He said Iraq needed additional support to “break the momentum of extremist groups and bolster the capabilities of Iraqi security forces”.
In Geneva, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned of “summary executions and extrajudicial killings” and said the number killed in recent days might be in the hundreds.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that 40,000 people have fled Tikrit and Samarra, adding to the 500,000 people who are already believed to have left Mosul.
Many who have fled have crossed into the autonomous Kurdish region.
The Kurdish leaders have used the current fighting to take control of territory they have sought to rule for decades, such as the strategic districts of Saadiyah and Jalawla.
Analysts say the violence could end in Iraq being further partitioned into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish zones.
ISIS in Iraq
An Islamist fighter near a burning Iraqi army Humvee in Tikrit
- The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, and grew out of an al-Qaeda-linked organisation in Iraq
- Joined in its offensives by other Sunni militant groups, including Saddam-era officers and soldiers, and sympathetic Sunni tribal fighters
- ISIS has exploited the standoff between the Iraqi government and the minority Sunni Arab community, which complains that Shia Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is monopolising power
- The organisation is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an obscure figure regarded as a battlefield commander and tactician
Are you in Saadiya, Jalawla or Baghdad? Have you been affected by the latest developments? You can email [email protected] using the title ‘Iraq’.
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