BAGHDAD: Iraq’s ruling alliance and powerful Shi’ite militias have urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to request Russian air strikes on Islamic State militants, who control large parts of the country, members of the coalition and militias told Reuters.
Growing pressure on Abadi to seek Russian support puts him in the delicate position of trying to appease his ruling coalition, as well as militias seen as a bulwark against Islamic State, while keeping strategic ally Washington on his side.
America’s top general, Joseph Dunford, said on a trip to Baghdad on Tuesday that the United States won assurances from Iraq that it would not seek such strikes.
Former Cold War foes the United States and Russia are carrying out rival campaigns of air strikes in neighbouring Syria and speculation has been growing this could spill over into Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer.
Abadi, his government and the Iranian-backed militias have all expressed frustration with the pace and depth of the U.S. campaign against Islamic State and signalled their intention to lean on Moscow, to the consternation of Washington.
Two members of parliament said the prime minister was under “tremendous pressure” from the ruling National Alliance to request Russian intervention.
Iraq received over $20 billion in U.S. military training since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 but its army virtually collapsed in the face of an Islamic State sweep through the north last year and made further gains in the west.
U.S.-led air strikes have failed to turn the tide in the war against the ultra-hardline Sunni militants who have declared a caliphate and want to redraw the map of the Middle East.
MPs and alliance members said an official request for Russian air strikes was relayed to Abadi in a meeting last week and that he has not officially responded.
“Abadi told the meeting parties that it wasn’t the right time to include the Russians in the fight because that would only complicate the situation with the Americans and could have undesired consequences even on long-term future relations with America,” said a senior Shi’ite politician close to Abadi.
Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq have formed a Baghdad-based intelligence cell in an attempt to boost efforts to counter the spread of Islamic State in the region. The cell has already shared intelligence for air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
Muen al-Kadhimi, a senior aide to the leader of the Badr Brigade militia, said Russia had proven more decisive in its air campaign in Syria than the Americans so it was only natural to seek Moscow’s help in Iraq.
“I am positive that the government will respond to pressures, especially after the official mandate of the National Alliance for prime minister Abadi to request Russia’s participation,” he said.