(cartoon by Javad Takjou, Etemaad daily, Tehran)
Syria and Iran have joined the fight against militant Sunni insurgents attempting to take over Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday that Syrian warplanes targeted militants earlier this week on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has used the border area as a gateway to take over large areas in northern and western Iraq. Maliki said he welcomed but did not request the Syrian air attacks, which occurred Tuesday.
Other news accounts reported that the Syrian air assault was carried out over Iraqi air space.
Also, Iran is supporting the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government, supplying tons of military equipment and deploying surveillance drones in the Iraqi skies from an airfield in Baghdad.
The Syrian and Iranian fight against the militants linked to ISIL has produced an extraordinary confluence of interests with the United States, which otherwise is staunchly opposed to the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad and is engaged in contentious negotiations with Iran over its nuclear development program.
President Barack Obama has dispatched up to 300 military advisers to Baghdad to assist Iraqi officials, with more of them arriving Thursday. The U.S. is now flying 30 to 35 manned and unmanned daily surveillance flights over Iraq.
Political measure needed
British Foreign Secretary William Hague flew Thursday to Baghdad, where he met with Maliki and planned to hold talks with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
In his meeting with Hague, Maliki also conceded that political measures were needed alongside military action to repel a Sunni insurgent offensive that threatens to tear the country apart, the French news agency AFP reported.
"We should proceed in two parallel tracks," Maliki's office said he told Hague, who was on a surprise visit to Iraq.
Along with military operations, the authorities must continue "following up on the political process and holding a meeting of the parliament (on time) and electing a head of parliament and a president and forming the government,” Maliki said, according to AFP.
Maliki has thus far publicly focused on a military response to the two-week crisis, and his latest comments were his clearest yet regarding finding a political solution.
Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at both the Middle East Institute and the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, said the rise of ISIL in neighboring Iraq is rattling Tehran.
For the first time since the Arab Spring began, Iran has “seen the need to come out publicly and assure the Iranian population that they shouldn’t worry about ISIS fighters coming across the border from Iraq into Iran and basically do what they have done in Iraq in the last few weeks,” Vatanka said, using another common acronym for the militant group.
“The fact that the Iranians see a need to make such public assurances in itself I think is very telling,” Vatanka added. “It goes to show you how nervous the Iranian authorities are about what is happening next door in Iraq.”
Kerry meets with Mideast allies
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Fabius said Iraq is facing a "difficult situation" but that they expect Iraqis to unite.
"It’s a necessity not only for Iraq but for the whole region, because it’s a menace for Iraq for the region, for Europe and for the U.S., as well,” Fabius said.
Kerry, who met with Maliki and Barzani earlier this week, said he and Fabius agree on the desire for Iraq to quickly form a government "that represents unity for the country."
Kerry also met Thursday with America’s top Sunni state allies in the Middle East to weigh how to confront growing regional turmoil spawned by the Sunni Muslim insurgency group.
Kerry briefed his counterparts from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on his recent talks with Iraq's prime minister.
“Iraq, obviously, is one of the predominant points, the move of ISIL concerns every single country here," Kerry told reporters before the meeting at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris.
"In addition to that, we have an ongoing crisis in Syria, where ISIL is also involved,” Kerry said.
Two other Sunni states in the Mideast - Qatar and Kuwait - were not at Thursday's meeting.
Saudi Arabia, Kurds prepare
While in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah ordered "all necessary measures" to protect the kingdom against potential "terrorist threats", state news agency SPA reported Thursday.
The agency said the monarch ordered the unspecified measures after he chaired a meeting of the country's national security council to discuss fallout from security developments in the region - an apparent reference to the crisis in neighboring Iraq.
Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region is prepared to commit all of its forces to defend Kirkuk, as well, said President Barzani on Thursday.
If required, "we will bring all of our forces to preserve Kirkuk," Barzani said during his first visit to Kirkuk since Iraqi forces withdrew in the face of a major offensive by ISIL. The Iraqi move allowed Kurdish forces already there to take control.
The offensive has cleared the way for Iraqi Kurds to begin realizing long-held territorial dreams, moving their forces into disputed areas that the federal government has long opposed them adding to their autonomous northern region.
Deadline to form government
Khudair al-Khuzai, Iraq's acting vice president and a close ally of Maliki, said parliament would convene on July 1 to start the process of forming a new government.
Under the official schedule, Iraq’s parliament will have 30 days from its first meeting Tuesday to name a president and 15 days after that to name a prime minister.
Meeting the July 1 deadline is likely to be welcomed by the United States.
A broader government, bringing together Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims as well as Kurds, would offer more credibility in the fight against Sunni radicals, U.S. officials have said.
Mansoor Moaddel, who directs the Middle Eastern Values Study at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, said the United States should pursue a three-pronged strategy in trying to resolve the current crisis in Iraq.
Moaddel said the United States must work to weaken ties between ISIL and more moderate Sunnis; weaken links between Iraq Shi’ites and Iran’s sectarian Islamic regime; and strengthen ties between moderate Sunnis and Shi’ites.
“Without an inclusive government, I’m afraid that the political instability in Iraq will continue,” Moaddel said.
One thing the United States “can do is to bring in other players," he added, "including the Jordanians, the Qataris, the Saudis and basically Sunni-Arab regimes into some type of a coalition whose basic objective is to maintain the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq.”
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told VOA Thursday that four additional teams of advisers are now in Baghdad, bringing the total to six teams and 180 personnel.
Including Marine security teams and other personnel with the Office of Strategic Cooperation, there are about 500 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, Warren said.
The U.S.-Iraq operations are being headed by Major General Dana Pittard.
Warren said the advisers will need two to three weeks to assess Iraqi troops. The U.S. is also flying 30 to 35 manned and unmanned daily surveillance flights over Iraq.
The militants' push toward Baghdad seems to have slowed in recent days, with the Iraqi military reporting that it retook the country's biggest oil refinery at Beiji from the insurgents on Wednesday.
“Yesterday, we repelled an attempt to attack Beiji refinery and we killed all the militants who approached the perimeter of Beiji refinery. Beiji refinery has turned into a graveyard for the coward militants,” Lieutenant General Qassim al-Moussawi said.
Fight for Tikrit
Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on rebel-held Tikrit on Thursday, landing three helicopters with commandos in a stadium for what appeared to be their boldest counter-attack yet against Sunni insurgents who have rampaged through the north.
Eyewitnesses said battles were raging in the city, hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, which fell to Sunni Islamist fighters two weeks ago on the third day of a lightning offensive that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions.
The helicopters were shot at as they flew low over the city and landed in a stadium at the city's university, a security source at the scene said. The government did not immediately respond to requests for comment and by evening the assault was still not being reported on state media, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the advancing Sunni militants, risking ratcheting up already-high sectarian tensions.
Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon. Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.
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