Tehran: Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday told Iraq’s visiting premier that the Baghdad government is capable of defeating Daesh militants without foreign troops being deployed.
The military campaign against Daesh now encompasses US and other foreign air strikes in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, but more than four months after breaking into the country Daesh retains strongholds in the north and west while trying to seize other territory.
Having threatened to reach Baghdad’s outskirts, some Iraqi officials and Sunni tribal leaders in areas most affected by the unrest have argued that the world should step up its military involvement to a ground intervention against Daesh.
But Khamenei, whose authority surpasses Iran’s politicians on all matters, knocked down the idea, saying he believed Iraqis had “the capacity to overcome the terrorists and establish security” alone without the “need for foreign presence”.
“We stand beside you and will seriously defend your government like the previous government,” Khamenei, quoted by state television, said in a meeting in Tehran with Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi.
“Iran recognises the security of Iraq, [our] neighbour and brother country, as its own security.”
Khamenei blamed Western powers for the rise of Daesh insurgents and said they had no business tampering with the region’s geopolitics.
Iran and the United States have been arch-foes for decades but now share a strategic interest in reversing the territorial gains of Daesh that threaten to remake the Middle East map.
“[The] current imbroglio is the outcome of irresponsible acts in Syria by alien powers along with certain regional countries,” Khamenei said, according to a statement read on state television, an allusion to mainly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, He praised Iraq for “refusing to allow its soil to be used” against Bashar Al Assad, which Tehran has shored up against rebels bent on toppling him with the support of Western and Gulf Arab foes.
“We must firmly withstand them,” Khamenei said, referring to those arrayed against Al Assad. “[I have] no faith in the sincerity of the (US-led) coalition against Daesh. We believe the problem of Daesh and terrorism should be tackled by regional countries.”
Last month, Khamenei said he had personally rejected an offer from the United States for talks to fight Daesh.
To counter an offensive launched by Daesh on June 9, Iran has supplied Iraqi Kurds with weapons and sent military advisers to Baghdad, while denying it has deployed ground troops.
In early October, Iranian television published a rare picture of its elite Quds Force chief, Major General Qasim Sulaimani, on an Iraqi battlefield alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces. A series of photos published on social media in recent weeks have appeared to corroborate his presence.
And in September, a senior Iranian military official threatened to attack deep inside Iraq if the Daesh militants approached his country’s border.
Tehran, which has refused to join the international coalition against Daesh, advocates regional support for the Iraqi and Syrian governments, and says that air strikes are insufficient.
Before flying to Iran, Al Abadi ruled out any foreign ground intervention to assist government forces in retaking territory lost to the militants.
But at the same time the Iraqi premier appeared to set restrictions on Iran, saying no “regional power will fight here”.
On Tuesday during his first official visit to Iran since his appointment last month — he took over after Nouri Al Maliki’s failed bid to win a new term after the Daesh offensive brought Iraq close to collapse — Al Abadi said Iraq was at war with “terrorists” who threaten the whole region.
“Iraq is not fighting terrorism only. It is an extensive war with all these groups,” he said, alluding to Daesh and other extremist fighters such as Al Qaida’s Syria affiliate Al Nusra Front.
“It’s a threat to the region and these terrorist groups are trying to create a division between Shiites and Sunnis,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Al Abadi also met with President Hassan Rouhani and Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri.
The visit was originally scheduled to last one day but continued on Wednesday with Al Abadi set to meet influential former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and parliament speaker Ali Larijani.
As mainly Shiite neighbours, Iran and Iraq have been close since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussain in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, with Tehran’s role becoming increasingly open in recent years.
Iran had resolutely backed Al Maliki since he took office in Baghdad in 2006, but lost faith in him after the capitulation of the Iraqi military in the face of only a few thousand Daesh militants.