IRBIL, KIRKUK, Iraq: Iran was the first country to provide Iraq’s embattled autonomous Kurdish region with weapons to fight off jihadist-led militants, President Massoud Barzani said Tuesday.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran was the first state to help us ... and it provided us with weapons and equipment,” Barzani said at a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Militants led by the ISIS jihadist group launched a major offensive in June that overran large areas of Iraq, and began a renewed push earlier this month that saw Kurdish forces pushed back toward their regional capital of Irbil.
The setbacks sparked a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq and an international effort to provide the Kurds with arms and ammunition, and they have since managed to claw back some territory from the militants.
Iran has a direct interest in bolstering Kurdish forces, as a large section of its border with Iraq is made up of Kurdish-controlled areas.
Zarif, who arrived in Iraq Sunday, reiterated his assertion that while Iran is supporting its neighbor to the West, it is not doing so with forces on the ground.
“The Iraqi people require assistance, including defense assistance, but not soldiers ... We do not have any soldiers in Iraq, we don’t intend to send soldiers to Iraq,” Zarif said.
There have been reports of Iranian forces fighting in Iraq, and despite Zarif’s denial, evidence points to a more direct military role by Tehran.
State media reported that an Iranian pilot was killed fighting in Iraq, and several Iranian Su-25 warplanes are also in the country.
Meanwhile, Iraq carried out airstrikes against jihadists who have for months besieged the Turkmen-majority town of Amerli, where residents are short on food and water and face a “possible massacre.”
The nine strikes by Iraqi warplanes targeted forces from ISIS, Col. Mustafa al-Bayati said.
Time is running out for Amerli’s residents, who are in danger both because of their faith, which jihadists consider to be heresy, and their resistance against the fighters, which has drawn deadly retribution elsewhere.
“The people are still besieged and stranded there,” said Eliana Nabaa, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Iraq. There is “no possibility of evacuating them so far,” and only limited humanitarian assistance is reaching the town.
U.N. Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov has called for an urgent effort to help the town, saying residents face a “possible massacre.”
Nihad al-Bayati, who worked as an engineer at the Tikrit oil refinery but is now fighting to protect his hometown, said its defenders, who are made up of police and volunteers, have repelled two attacks in recent days.
Residents face a major shortage of both food and water, there is no electricity, and the helicopter flights delivering aid and ammunition are targeted with machinegun fire on the way in, and mortar rounds once they land.
In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in a busy Shiite area in the eastern part of the capital, killing at least 11 people, officials said.
The explosives-laden car went off during the morning rush hour in the main commercial area of the New Baghdad district. It was parked close to outdoor pet and vegetable markets and a traffic police office, a police officer said.
The attack also wounded 31, he added. A medical official confirmed the casualty figures.
The bombing came a day after a wave of attacks targeted Shiite areas in several cities, including Baghdad, killing at least 58. Among them were 15 worshippers who died in a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in the same New Baghdad neighborhood where Tuesday’s car bomb struck.
In online statements, ISIS claimed responsibility for Monday’s mosque attack and another in the Shiite-majority district of Utaifiya in Baghdad, where two car bombs tore through a busy commercial area near a restaurant and killed at least 15.
And in two separate tweets, it took credit for car bombings in the Shiite holy city of Karbala and nearby Hillah south of Baghdad that together killed at least 23 people on the same day.