Identity, Equality, Unity
BAGHDAD — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential Shiite cleric, on Friday urged vigilance against Western political interference in Iraqi affairs but stopped short of opposing the American-led military campaign against the extremists of the Islamic State.
“All political leaders of the country must be aware and awake to prevent the external assistance against the Islamic State from becoming an entrance to breach Iraq’s independence,” Ayatollah Sistani said. “Cooperation with the international effort shall not be taken as a pretext to impose foreign decisions on events in Iraq, especially military events.”
His carefully balanced comments, in a statement read by his spokesman at Friday Prayer in the Iraqi city of Karbala, underscored the challenge facing the United States and its allies in their efforts to push back the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, without bolstering or antagonizing rival Shiite factions.
The ayatollah’s comments came shortly after the office of President François Hollande of France announced that French fighter jets had carried out their first attacks on Islamic State targets in Iraq, fulfilling his pledge a day earlier to join the international military campaign against the group.
In recent days, a handful of other Iraqi Shiite leaders or militias with closer ties to Iran have made statements expressing more wariness or opposition to the American-led military efforts, and American officials have said the Iranian proxies may be seeking to remind the Western states that Tehran, too, should be taken into account. On Friday, the Iraqi cleric Moktada al-Sadr, another influential voice with ties to Iran, called for a demonstration in Baghdad on Saturday to protest a potential incursion by American ground forces.
But Ayatollah Sistani, considered both independent and uniquely popular here, was more judicious. While he warned Iraqis to guard against foreign interference, he also appeared to endorse the idea that foreign help may be required to successfully engage the Sunni extremists.
“Iraq may be in need of assistance from its friends and brothers to combat black terrorism,” Ayatollah Sistani said. But he insisted that for Iraq, “preserving its sovereignty and independence must be the most important thing and must be taken into consideration.”
He also appealed for intersectarian solidarity in the fight against the extremists by specifically urging support for Dhuluiya, a Sunni town that has held out for months against a siege by the Sunni extremists. “Our brave Iraqi forces should help and defend Dhuluiya,” he said, “because its people are our brothers and they are the sons of our country.”
Elsewhere, French Rafale warplanes struck a logistics depot belonging to the Islamic State in northeastern Iraq on Friday. Mr. Hollande said in a statement, “The objective was hit and entirely destroyed.”
Mr. Hollande said other operations would take place in the coming days.
Remarking on the violent tactics employed by the Sunni militants, who have conquered wide areas of Iraq and Syria, Mr. Hollande said Thursday at a news conference in Paris that the group had been able to grow partly because the international community had failed to intervene. But he emphasized that France’s role would be limited to providing air support, including strikes, in Iraq.
dicated that France would not expand its mission into Syria, and French officials have made it clear that the government does not want to give the impression that it supports the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad.
France was a vociferous opponent of the American-led effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003, and analysts say the French public remains wary of sustained Western intervention in the region. Mr. Hollande, whose domestic political approval rating has hit a low of 13 percent amid persistent economic troubles, has framed the fight against Islamic State as important for French national security.
In Washington, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said American troop levels in Iraq could increase as Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters press their fight to retake territory seized by the Islamic State.
General Odierno, who served as the top American military commander in Iraq, said the 1,600 American troops who are currently on the ground in Iraq was “a good start.” He added, “I don’t think there’s a rush — a rush to have lots of people in there now.” But during a breakfast meeting with reporters, he did not rule out the possibility of sending more American military advisers to Iraq.
President Obama has repeatedly said that he will not send American ground combat troops to Iraq.
In northern Syria, an Islamic State offensive has driven thousands of Syrian Kurds from their homes, with many fleeing across the border into Turkey on Friday, prompting a call by an Iraqi Kurdish leader for international intervention.
In recent days, extremist fighters seized villages in northern Syria, officials said, and on Friday were attacking the mainly Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani in Kurdish, on the Turkish border, news services reported.
“I’d like to ask the international community to take every measure as soon as possible to save Kobani,” Massoud Barzani, president of the largely autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, said in a statement. The militants, he said, “have to be hit and defeated wherever they are.”