Sunday, August 24, 2014

Zarif in Baghdad

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Baghdad on Sunday to hold talks on the Iraqi crisis with the country’s leadership, including the Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi.

Iran’s relations with Iraq have been primarily conducted by General Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, who has practically lived in Iraq since the current conflict began in June. Zarif’s visit probably signals the return of Iraqi portfolio to the foreign ministry, which is the diplomatic norm.

While Zarif was in Baghdad, the Islamic State insurgents launched a string of attacks across the country, which left at least 35 people dead. The militants renewed their push toward the Baiji refinery, once the country’s largest, supplying some 50 percent of Iraq’s supply of refined petroleum products, but shut down since June as it became the scene of major fighting between the IS insurgents and Iraqi security forces for its control.

Zarif’s visit also come at a delicate time for Abadi’s attempt to form the new Iraqi government. On Friday, suspected Shia militia gunmen massacred 70 Sunni worshippers at Friday prayers in a mosque in Diyala province. The attack threatened to derail Abadi’s negotiations with the Sunnis on the composition of the new cabinet. Abadi, a Shia, has called on all Iraqi citizens “to close rank to deny opportunity to the enemies of Iraq who are trying to provoke strife.”

The timing of the visit also coincided with reports that hundreds of Iranian troops supported by an armored column crossed the Iraqi border and entered the city of Khanaqin on Friday, but retreated after only one day. 

It is not known if the Iranian troops participated in any operation against the Islamic State forces, who control the city of Jalula, near Khanaqin and only 19 miles from the Iranian border. The daylong deployment of Iranian ground forces into Iraq was the first during the current conflict, and could have been a probing maneuver to test the IS defenses and to demonstrate Iran's military ground force capabilities. Iranian armored and infantry divisions are deployed at the border, ready to cross it if ordered.

Photo credit: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (IRNA)

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