Iraq Asks For Russian Airstrikes; US Air Force "Small Help"

In a devestating blow to US influence in the country it occupied in 2003, Iraq's government has called for Russian assistance against ISIS. Meanwhile, Iraqis in the streets are celebrating Vladimir Putin.

MORE: Politics
  • Iraq's PM Haider al-Abadi "welcomes" Russian airstrikes inside Iraq; 
  • al-Abadi calls US airstrikes just "a small help"
  • ISIS has stepped up terror bombings in Iraqi cities
  • A large chorus of Iraqi MPs are calling for Russian aid
  • Russia says will consider Iraqi appeal for help
  • Vladimir Putin praised by ordinary Iraqis 

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


BAGHDAD—Iraqi Shiite lawmakers and militia leaders are urging Russia to launch airstrikes on Islamic State militants in their country, a sharp reproach to the U.S.-led air campaign targeting the extremist group. 

Since Moscow began bombing opponents of the regime in Syria last week, the lawmakers and militia leaders have pressed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to invite Russia to intervene in Iraq. Mr. Abadi said last week that he would welcome Russian airstrikes in Iraq as long as they were coordinated with the U.S.-led coalition. 

Iraq’s Shiite politicians, who dominate the government, were largely united in their praise of Russia’s intervention and calls for Russian airstrikes.

“We welcome Russian airstrikes in Iraq to help hit Islamic State headquarters, target Islamic State supply lines from Syria and target the oil smuggling lines,” said Moeen al-Kadhimi, a spokesman for the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia and political party that plays a front-line role in fighting Islamic State. “We welcome Russia as they have advanced military technology and can help with intelligence.”

Many Iraqi Shiite politicians have close ties with Shiite Iran, and Tehran is one of the closest allies of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad,whose regime is dominated by the Shiite-linked Alawite minority. Iraq’s government said last week that it had sealed an agreement with Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime to share intelligence in an effort to combat Islamic State. 

A Russian intervention would rival American influence in Iraq and increase the risks of a regional clash between the two powers. Nevertheless, momentum appears to be quickly building for increased Russian involvement in Iraq.

Some Iraqi officials have expressed concern about a potential proxy war between the U.S. and Russia spilling into their country. 

“This intervention is going to cause confusion to the area,” said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a leading Sunni lawmaker and former speaker of parliament. “We fear that this intervention will cause a second Afghanistan in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria.”

Iraq’s government has already agreed to form an “operations room” in Baghdad to facilitate the intelligence sharing with representatives of the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.

Mr. Abadi on Tuesday called the U.S.-led coalition “a small help” and said he sought to maintain cordial relations with both the Americans and Russians.

“This doesn’t mean that I reject the small help. Even the one single bomb would be helpful to me,” he said at the opening of a hospital.

A delegation of lawmakers from Iraq’s defense and security committee in parliament is scheduled to travel to Moscow in early November to hash out more details of the intelligence-sharing agreement, said Shakwan Abdullah, the deputy head of the committee.

In response to questions about its plans in Iraq,The head of Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, said during an official visit to Jordan on Tuesday that Moscow could carry out bombing raids in Iraq if the government requested. The Council approved the use of Russian force in Syria late last month.

“In the case of an appeal by the Iraqi leadership to Russian Federation, the country’s leadership will consider the political and military expediency of our air force’s participation in an air operation,” said Federation Council head Valentina Matviyenko. “No appeal yet has been made.”

The rising calls for Russian intervention come as Iraq’s security continues to worsen. Islamic State claimed responsibility for a rash of bombings that killed more than 50 people throughout the country on Monday.

The worst attack killed 36 people and injured 75 when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb Monday in a parking lot in a crowded area of Khalis, a mostly Shiite city about 40 miles north of Baghdad in Diyala province, said Hasan Shalal, mayor of the city.

In separate attacks, eight people were killed and 35 injured in a car bombing in a town southwest of the southern city of Basra. A car bombing in the northern Baghdad neighborhood killed two and injured eight, according to the Ministry of Interior.

Much of the support from Shiite lawmakers and militia leaders for a Russian intervention stems from frustration with the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. military officials have rejected Iraqi claims that the coalition has made limited progress. They point to progress reclaiming some of the territory since Islamic State took over about a quarter of Iraq in the summer of 2014.

Though Iraqis militia fighters and soldiers have retaken a few cities with the help of U.S. air support, they have also lost important cities such as the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi in May. An offensive to retake Anbar from Islamic State has stalled months after it was announced.

The frustrations with the U.S. are also rooted in sectarian tensions. Some Iraqi Shiite politicians consider the U.S. reluctance to commit ground troops or aggressively expand its bombing raids as a ploy to empower Iraq’s Sunni minority at the expense of Shiites who now dominate the government. 

Hassan Salim, a leading parliamentarian with the Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, accused those who oppose Russia’s intervention of supporting American interests in dividing Iraq and establishing an independent Sunni state.

“Those who object to the alliance are deluded by America. They aim to achieve their dream of setting up the Sunni region,” he said at a news conference on Monday, flanked by other Shiite leaders.

Iraq’s Sunnis have had closer ties to the U.S. and its allies in the region, particularly the Sunni-led Gulf Arab states. 

Many have viewed Russian moves as potentially empowering Iran, though some Sunni politicians greeted news of the Russian intervention against Islamic State with reluctant support.

Official support for Russian intervention has spilled into Iraqi social media. For the past week, Iraqis have traded images and videos—both humorous and sincere—thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin and critiquing the American military.

In one widely circulated Facebook post, Mr. Putin wears his characteristic wry smile and the black turban of an ayatollah, or Shiite cleric.

“Ayatollah Putin, may God keeps Putin’s blessing on us,” reads the accompanying text.

Write to Matt Bradley at Matt.Bradley@wsj.com

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