BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States won assurances from Iraq on Tuesday that it would not seek Russian air strikes against Islamic State, America’s top general said, adding he warned Baghdad that a Russian air role would impede the U.S.-led campaign.
Russia’s new military intervention in Iraq’s neighbor Syria has seen the former Cold War foes carrying out rival campaigns of air strikes there and has triggered questions about whether Russia might extend its campaign to Iraq.
The United States has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq for more than a year.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, under pressure to show progress in his war against Islamic State, said on Oct. 1 that he would welcome Russian air strikes in his country.
U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, on his first trip to Iraq since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1, said Abadi and Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi both told him they were not seeking Russia’s help.
“I said it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support that you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well,” Dunford told a small group of reporters traveling with him after his talks.
“Both the minister of defense and the prime minister said: ‘Absolutely.’ There is no request right now for the Russians to support them, there’s no consideration for the Russians to support them, and the Russians haven’t asked them to come in and conduct operations.”
Dunford also played down a much-touted Baghdad-based intelligence-sharing cell between Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, which has stoked questions about Moscow’s intentions in Iraq.
A senior Iraqi parliamentary figure said last week that Baghdad had already begun bombing Islamic State jihadists with the help of new intelligence center in Baghdad.
But Obeidi, Dunford said, told him during closed-door talks in Baghdad that the intelligence cell so far “hasn’t stood up.”
“He said they have not done anything right now,” Dunford said.
Across the border in Syria, Russia is pressing ahead with a campaign of air strikes it began in late September that it says are aimed at striking Islamic State. Western powers say its move seeks to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow.
Some of Russia’s air strikes have hit groups that are not affiliated with Islamic State, but are trying to unseat Assad, and are backed by the United States and its allies.
Russia’s entry into the campaign has also stoked concerns about an accident between U.S. and Russian jets and raised questions about whether the U.S. air campaign might be curtailed to ensure pilot safety.
The Pentagon has cited cases in which Russia aircraft came within miles of drones and piloted U.S. fighter aircraft.
U.S. and Russian military officials signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday that includes steps their pilots should take to avoid an inadvertent clash over Syria.
Dunford said that, with the safety agreement in place, the U.S.-led coalition would carry on with its mission.
“I’m not going to tell you there’s not going to be friction,” Dunford said, acknowledging the possibility that U.S. jets might need to delay missions or change course if Russian aircraft are identified.
“What I‘m telling you is the basic execution of the plan is going to continue.”
Editing by Alison Williams and Leslie Adler