BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has said its military officials are engaged in intelligence and security cooperation in Baghdad with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from the Islamic State militant group, a pact that could raise concerns in Washington.
A statement from the Iraqi military’s joint operations command on Saturday said the cooperation had come “with increased Russian concern about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts with Daesh (Islamic State).”
The move could give Moscow more sway in the Middle East. It has stepped up its military involvement in Syria in recent weeks while pressing for Damascus to be included in international efforts to fight Islamic State, a demand Washington rejects.
Russia’s engagement in Iraq could mean increased competition for Washington from a Cold War rival as long-time enemy Iran increases its influence through Shi‘ite militia allies just four years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Russian news agency Interfax quoted a military diplomatic source in Moscow as saying the Baghdad coordination center would be led on a rotating basis by officers of the four countries, starting with Iraq.
The source added a committee might be created in Baghdad to plan military operations and control armed forces units in the fight against Islamic State.
The Russian defense ministry declined to comment on the reports.
By raising the stakes in Syria’s four-year-old civil war, Moscow has prompted Washington to expand diplomatic channels with it.
Western officials have said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wants to launch a new effort at the U.N. General Assembly this week to try to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Diplomacy has taken on new urgency in light of Russia’s military build-up in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a refugee crisis that has spilled into Europe.
Critics have urged U.S. President Barack Obama to be more decisive in the Middle East, particularly towards the Syrian conflict, and say lack of a clear American policy has given Islamic State opportunities to expand.
A Russian foreign ministry official told Interfax on Friday that Moscow could “theoretically” join the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State if Damascus were included in international efforts to combat Islamic State and any international military operation in Syria had a United Nations mandate.
Iraqi officials on Friday had denied reports of a coordination cell in Baghdad set up by Russian, Syrian and Iranian military commanders aimed at working with Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militias in Iraq.
The armed groups, some of which have fought alongside troops loyal to Assad, are seen as a critical weapon in Baghdad’s battle against the radical Sunni militants of Islamic State.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in New York on Friday that his country had not received any Russian military advisers to help its forces but called for the U.S.-led coalition to bomb more Islamic State targets in Iraq.
Despite more than $20 billion in U.S. aid and training, Iraq’s army has nearly collapsed twice in the last year in the face of advances by Islamic State, which controls large swathes of territory in the north and west of the OPEC oil producer.
Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Editing by Michael Georgy and Sandra Maler