US comes to aid of Iraqi forces with airstrike
(www.bostonglobe.com) PARIS — As the United States opened a new phase of its air campaign against the Islamic State fighters in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the Obama administration would keep the door open to confidential communications with Iran on the security crisis.
The US Central Command said it took the first step in its expanded fight against Islamic State militants, conducting an airstrike in defense of Iraqi security forces southwest of Baghdad who were being attacked by enemy fighters, the Associated Press reported.
Central Command said Iraqi forces requested assistance Monday. The strike represents the newly broadened mission authorized by President Obama to go on the offensive against the Islamic State group wherever it is.
Previous US airstrikes in Iraq were conducted to protect US interests and personnel, assist Iraqi refugees, and secure critical infrastructure. Monday’s strike was in direct support of Iraqi forces fighting the militants.
There was also an airstrike Sunday near Sinjar in northern Iraq that destroyed six vehicles belonging to the militants but it was not part of Obama’s expanded mission, AP reported.
Kerry spoke at a summit in Paris where more than two dozen nations pledged to stop the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The effort is expected to include intensifying airstrikes, cutting off financing to the radical group, and helping Baghdad with military and humanitarian aid.
As the conference began, two French jets took off over Iraq. It was France’s first reconnaissance missions over the country, and a sign of the larger battle ahead.
Kerry’s comments came despite sarcastic criticism from Iran’s supreme leader, who said the American plan for bombing Islamic militants, their common enemy, was absurd.
Kerry acknowledged that the United States had opposed a role for Iran at the international conference here on strengthening a coalition to help the new government in Baghdad fight the Islamic State.
France and Iraq believe the Shi’ite leadership of Iran could bring its influence to bear against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, but Saudi Arabia and other Arab states disagree.
Both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and top officials from the United Arab Emirates had informed the United States that they would not attend the meeting here if Iran was present, said Kerry, who also stressed that the United States would not coordinate militarily with the Iranians.
But Kerry also said US officials were still prepared to talk to Iranian officials about Iraq and Syria, including on the margins of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which will resume in New York on Thursday.
Just because Iranians were not invited to the Paris conference, Kerry said, “doesn’t mean that we are opposed to the idea of communicating to find out if they will come on board or under what circumstances or whether there is the possibility of a change.”
Kerry said that “having a channel of communication on one of the biggest issues in the world today is common sense.”
Still, Kerry acknowledged that attempts made by Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns to draw the Iranians into a discussion of regional issues on the margins of earlier talks had not been productive.
In Tehran, officials told local reporters Monday they had rejected multiple invitations by the United States to join the coalition. Never, they asserted, would Iran consider working with the United States to cleanse the region of terrorists, who the Iranians asserted had been created and nurtured by the West.
The country’s highest leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, indicated that no matter who had invited whom, Iran would sit with arms crossed and watch as the coalition tries to bomb the Islamic State away.
On Monday, as Khamenei was discharged from the hospital after a prostate operation, he said he had enjoyed his time as a patient, since he had “a hobby,” which was “listening to Americans making statements on combating ISIS — it was really amusing,” a statement posted on his personal website read, using one of the acronyms for Islamic State.
“Of course,” he said, such statements are “absurd, hollow, and biased.”
Khamenei, who has long argued that the United States and other Western countries have had a hand in the creation and swift expansion of the Islamic State, gave details on what he said were several instances of outreach by US officials, asking Iran to participate.
Although some Iranian officials wanted to consider the offer, Khamenei vetoed it.
The real goal of the US-led coalition is to be able to bomb Iraq, and Iran’s main regional ally, Syria, with impunity, Khamenei said, revealing increasing worries of a US drone army hovering over the region.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declined a request by Kerry, the ayatollah said.
Ideologically, any form of partnership with Iran’s old enemy is hard to stomach for Khamenei and his supporters. Analysts say Iran’s leaders simply cannot participate in an umbrella group in which the United States plays a decisive role.