Top Republican lawmaker Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) suggested on Sunday that a deal with Iran might be necessary in the short term to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from marching on Baghdad – not dissimilar to America’s alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union at the height of the Second World War.
“We’re going to have to have some dialogue with the Iranians,” Graham said.
CBS News confirmed that Qasem Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is in Iraq for consultations over how Iran might assist Baghdad’s efforts to fight ISIS.
Graham, a harsh critic of the Obama administration, joined the chorus of his peers from across the American political aisle in warning of the dramatic consequences of ISIS’s progress.
“We had al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, on their backs,” Graham said, calling on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign.
“We had this place in a good spot. They were playing politics, rather than killing each other.”
ISIS “will eventually march on Jordan and Lebanon,” Graham warned. “They’re going to take the king of Jordan down.”
“It is too late to have long political reconciliation meetings that will last weeks or months,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said on Fox News Sunday. “You have an al-Qaida army on the move.”
Rogers said the administration should organize neighboring Arab states in a joint response, and support that with US intelligence, air power, and other assistance. He said the threat was not just regional, but that ISIS is establishing a safe haven, which it will then use to plan attacks against targets in the United States or Europe.
The insurgent offensive that has threatened to dismember Iraq spread to the northwest of the country on Sunday, when Sunni radicals launched a dawn raid on a town close to the Syrian border, clashing with police and government forces.
As the rapid advance by ISIS toward Baghdad appeared to slow over the weekend, fierce fighting erupted in the town of Tal Afar, 60 km. west of Mosul near the Syrian border, security sources and a local official said.
ISIS fighters and other Sunni armed groups have stormed several towns on the road to Baghdad after seizing Mosul nearly a week ago in an offensive that only stalled as it approached the mainly Shi’ite capital.
The advance alarmed both Maliki’s Shi’ite supporters in Iran and officials in the United States, which helped bring him to power after its 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Some analysts viewed that the Obama administration was moving toward some kind of deal with Iran, and the latest news of Sen. Graham agreeing with such a policy because of the recent developments in Iraq could help blunt criticism of it.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who previously served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense and a senior director at the National Security Council, told The Jerusalem Post that “the taking of Mosul by ISIS damages [President Barack] Obama’s reputation as a good steward of the national interest but it will not dent his worldview.
“He has long believed that the United States has few choices but to seek a regional accommodation with Iran, but the politics of the nuclear deal and a long tradition in American foreign policy of countering Iranian hegemonic ambitions have prevented Obama from openly admitting as much,” he said.
Doran believes that recent developments will allow Obama to be “more transparent” in his efforts to partner with the Islamic Republic.
“Iran, however, will never be an effective partner for the United States, in countering al-Qaida or in any other major regional project, because it seeks to undermine the American position in the region,” he added.
Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, told the Post that US policy should be to stay out of Iraq, just like it did in Syria.
“Just as I want us to stay out of the Syrian conflict, except to provide assistance to whichever side is losing, so I urge the same in Iraq,” said Pipes, adding, “better that the Turkish-backed Sunni jihadis fight the Iranian-backed central government in both places than either side turn its guns against us.”
Such a situation would create problems for the Turkish and Iranian regimes, “reducing their abilities to make mischief elsewhere,” he added.
Maliki’s security forces and allied militias regained some territory on Saturday, easing part of the pressure on his Shi’ite-led government, and officials said they were regaining the initiative. Maliki has vowed to rout the insurgents.
But Sunday’s fighting in Tal Afar, a majority Turkomen town that is home to both Shi’ites and Sunnis, showed how volatile the deepening sectarian divisions have become.
Residents in Sunni districts accused Shi’ite police and army forces of launching mortar fire at their neighborhoods, prompting ISIS forces stationed outside the town to move in.
“The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can’t leave town,” a local official said. “If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result.”
Government forces are using helicopter gunships against ISIS on the outskirts of Tal Afar, said a member of Maliki’s security committee.
In Mosul, an Iraqi military jet came under anti-aircraft fire from ISIS fighters, witnesses said. It was not immediately clear whether it was preparing to attack ISIS positions or was carrying out reconnaissance.
In Baghdad on Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and wounding 20 in a crowded street in the center of the capital, police and medical sources said.
At least six people were killed, including three soldiers and three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting center in Khlais, 50 km. north of Baghdad.
Volunteers were gathered by the army to join fighting to regain control of the northern town of Udhaim from the ISIS.
Thousands responded to a call by the country’s most influential Shi’ite cleric to take up arms and defend the country against the hard-line insurgents, many of whom consider Shi’ites as heretics.
Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s Basij paramilitary volunteer forces, Brig.- Gen. Muhammad Reza Naqdi, said the ISIS attacks in Iraq are a new US plot, set up after it failed to defeat other resistance groups in the Middle East.
“Today the enemy has targeted us in multiple soft-war fronts, because it knows that it cannot combat us in a battlefield,” said Naqdi in Tehran on Sunday, Iran’s Fars news agency reported.
The deputy commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, Brig.-Gen. Kioumars Heidari, said that his country’s borders are secure.
“All the possible outcomes for any type of activity along the country’s Western borders have been studied and we are prepared for confronting any possible conditions,” he said, Fars reported.
A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIS Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying on the ground.
Captions accompanying the pictures said they showed hundreds of army deserters who were captured as they tried to flee the fighting. They were shown being transported in the back of truck and led to an open field, where they laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen.
The black ISIS flag can be seen in several of the pictures.
Most of the captured men were wearing civilian clothes, although one picture showed two men in military camouflage trousers, one of them half-covered by a pair of ordinary trousers.
“This is the fate of the Shi’ites which Nouri [al-Maliki] brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures read. Others showed ISIS fighters apparently seizing facilities in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the pictures.
Across the border, a Syrian government air raid hit near ISIS’s headquarters in the eastern city of Raqqa, activists said.
US President Barack Obama stayed in Palm Springs, California, over Father’s Day weekend, while his national security team weighed military options to offer the president.
In preparation for any possible campaign, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel moved the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier, equipped with Patriot missiles with reach throughout the country, to the Arabian Gulf.
The US intelligence community estimates that ISIS has roughly $1.2 billion in cash flow from the black-market trade of oil, pumped by the organization in eastern Syrian fields, and from the takeover of Iraq’s central bank in Mosul, where the group seized nearly $500 million.
That makes ISIS the richest terrorist organization in the world: In comparison, al-Qaida, said to be wealthy before the September 11 2001 attacks, had an estimated wealth of $30 m. at the time.Reuters contributed to this report.