Iranian fighter jets bomb ISIL targets in Iraq: Pentagon

A senior official in Iran denied the report while the foreign ministry said 'there has been no change' to Tehran's policy to provide support and advice to Iraq in fight against ISIL.

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WASHINGTON // Iranian fighter jets struck ISIL militants in eastern Iraq in recent days, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

A senior official in Iran denied the report while a foreign ministry spokeswoman said, “There has been no change to Iran’s policy to provide support and advice to Iraqi officials in the fight against Daesh ... I do not confirm this information on military cooperation [with Iraq].” Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIL.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby earlier said ,“We have indications that they did indeed fly air strikes with F-4 Phantoms in the past several days.”

His comments came days after Al Jazeera ran footage of what appeared to be an F-4 fighter, similar to those used by the Iranian air force, attacking targets in the eastern province of Diyala.

If true, the air raids marked an escalation in Iran’s role in a conflict that has seen Tehran and the Washington set aside their customary hostility to battle a common enemy in the ISIL group, which both governments view as a dangerous threat.

Iranian forces have been active on the ground in Iraq assisting Shiite militia and Baghdad government units, but this was the first time the United States had confirmed the Iranian air force was conducting strikes against the militant group.

Adm Kirby said the United States was not coordinating with Iranian forces and that it was up to the Iraqi government to oversee military flights by different countries.

“We are flying missions over Iraq. We coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those. It’s up to the Iraqi government to deconflict that air space,” Adm Kirby said.

“Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians.”

Even if there is no direct communication between the two countries’ forces, the Americans likely would be aware and easily monitor flights over Iraq by Iran’s less sophisticated air fleet, which uses a fighter jet that dates back to the Vietnam War.

A US air command centre in Qatar co-ordinates American fighters, bombers, drones and surveillance aircraft flying round-the-clock missions over Iraq along with other coalition warplanes from European governments as well as Australia and Canada.

The onslaught of ISIL in Iraq has forged an unlikely alignment between Iran and the United States, which have been locked in a cold war for more than three decades.

The fight against the militant group has come amid a US diplomatic drive to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, and officials acknowledge the two sides have discussed the war in Iraq on the margins of the nuclear talks.

But the two rivals remain deeply opposed over Syria, with Iran providing crucial military backing for President Bashar Al Assad while Washington has vowed to train a moderate rebel force to eventually confront the Damascus regime.

Analysts and former US officials say neither country appears ready to pursue elaborate cooperation for military operations in Iraq, but there appears to be some level of tactical communication at least to avoid accidents.

Shiite-ruled Iran has close ties to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and Tehran quickly came to the government’s aid after the Sunni extremists overran Iraqi army units in western and northern Iraq earlier this year.

Iran also has provided Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft to Iraq amid widespread speculation that the planes are flown by Iranian pilots.

Iranian weapons have made their way to Shiite fighters in Iraq, including 12.7mm rifles designed to penetrate armoured vehicles and multiple rocket launchers, according to a report by IHS Jane’s Defence.

The commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, led a counter-attack in Iraq over the summer that pushed back ISIL militants from a key route leading from Samarra to Baghdad, according to Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hizbollah.

Gen Suleimani flew to Baghdad on June 10, hours after the ISIL group seized the Iraqi city of Mosul, and hammered out a strategy “to secure Baghdad and its surroundings”, according to the Shiite group’s Al Manar website.

Gen Suleimani also reportedly has had a hand in operations against ISIL in Amerli in the north and in eastern Iraq near the Iranian border. Iranian television last month released a rare photo of Gen Suleimani in Iraq with Kurdish peshmerga fighters, promoting Tehran’s role in the fight against ISIL.

Iran has declined to join the US-led coalition against the extremist group and publicly dismissed the air war, but Tehran’s Iraqi allies have benefited from the strikes against the militants.

Iran acquired its F-4 fighters from the United States before the 1979 revolution that toppled the country’s pro-US monarchy.

* Agence France-Presse