- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Iranian fighter jets have begun pounding Islamic State targets, and France said Wednesday that it will ramp up its airstrikes as a U.S.-led coalition met for the first time since the extremists began seizing swaths of Iraq and Syria nearly a year ago.

The Iranian and French developments were welcomed by the Obama administration despite political criticism the White House has faced from both major political parties for relying too heavily on other nations to coordinate the fight against the al Qaeda-inspired militant group.

Iran, which the United States lists as the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, is not an official member of the coalition, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry said its military participation would be a “net positive” in the international push to crush the Islamic State.

Mr. Kerry and others in the administration adamantly deny any coordination between Washington and Tehran and say the evolving, multilateral war strategy for Syria and Iraq won’t include such cooperation anytime soon.

During comments on the periphery of the coalition meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, Mr. Kerry also downplayed the risk that U.S. and Iranian fighter jets may dangerously cross paths.

“We rely on the Iraqi government to deconflict whatever control of their airspace may in fact need that deconfliction,” he said.

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Syrian President Bashar Assad — another U.S. adversary whose military is fighting the Islamic State independently of the United States — taunted Western leaders for failing to put together a coherent and effective strategy against the extremists.

In an interview published Wednesday in the French magazine Paris Match, Mr. Assad said the U.S.-led air campaign simply has not rendered “any tangible results” and that measurable success will require significant troops to fight the extremists on the ground.

Mr. Assad seemed to be intentionally inserting himself into a debate that has pitted senior Obama administration officials against one another. Advisers at the Pentagon are believed to be advocating for a U.S. ground troop deployment amid resistance from those inside the White House.

Mr. Kerry appeared to favor the latter view, saying more than 1,000 airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State targets since September have inflicted serious damage on the group known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, and in Arabic as “Daesh.”

The strikes, he said, have opened a window for Iraqi military troops, Sunni tribal fighters and Kurdish militias to advance on the ground.

“It is much harder now than when we started for Daesh to assemble forces in strength, to travel in convoys and to launch concerted attacks,” Mr. Kerry said.

SEE ALSO: Iran using U.S.-made F-4 Phantom jets to bomb Islamic State

Uncertainty looms over the campaign’s long-term sustainability.

The United States and the rest of the world were slow to act after Islamic State militants claimed control of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border and seizing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June. The U.S. and international response was hobbled by confusion and feuding among allies, including what support each nation was willing to give and how to achieve the overarching goal.

Many in the Sunni population blame Washington for propping up an Iranian-backed, Shiite government in Baghdad during the nearly decadelong U.S. military occupation that ended in 2011.

The Obama administration spent much of the past year pushing for the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, on grounds that his government’s mistreatment of the nation’s Sunnis helped give rise to the Sunni extremists who make up the Islamic State.

Mr. al-Maliki was driven out in August, but the new Iraqi government has yet to approve the creation of a national guard comprised of troops of the same religious sect or ethnic group that they are tasked to protect. The development is seen as a necessary step toward soothing Sunni Muslims in northern and western Iraq, where the insurgency gained a stronghold by tapping into anger against the nation’s Shiite-dominated security forces.

State Department officials say the United States has helped to quickly train some 2,000 ground fighters — most of them Sunnis from Iraq’s western Anbar province — to serve as a stopgap security force until the federal parliament in Baghdad creates the national guard.

Iraqi politicians say the situation is bleak. The nation’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, told diplomats in Brussels on Wednesday that “we’re the only country in the Middle East who is really fighting Daesh on the ground.” He pleaded for more help.

French President Francois Hollande said his military is ready to “carry out quick and efficient actions” to back up Iraqi forces on the ground. Reports later indicated that Mr. Hollande was referring to a ramping-up of French air support, after announcements that the nation would send six fighter jets to back the U.S.-led coalition in addition to the 12 French aircraft already participating.

Still, the news of a growing Iranian role in the war brings the specter of escalating sectarian divisions.

The Obama administration has persuaded several of the region’s Sunni Arab powers — most notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar — to join the campaign against the Islamic State. Iran, the Middle East’s Shiite Muslim powerhouse, has tense relations with those nations.

Such factors could explain why Iran denied Wednesday that its military was carrying out airstrikes in Iraq.

“Iran has never been involved in any airstrikes against Daesh targets in Iraq,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters.

“Any cooperation in such strikes with America is also out of the question for Iran,” he said.

But U.S. military officials said Iranian fighter jets have begun pounding Islamic State targets on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border, marking the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 that Iran has deployed its fighter jets for such missions.

A senior Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Iranian pilots flew four McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II jets, presumably purchased from the U.S. decades ago.

“It’s the first time they’ve done this,” said the official, who added that it was too early to tell whether Tehran would continue the strikes in the days and weeks ahead.

Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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