British, American and other allied forces are now fighting directly alongside their former rivals Iran, according to new footage of the war in Iraq.
An Iranian jet has been filmed for the first time bombing positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), during a battle for the town of Saadiya, north-east of Baghdad.
United State Air Force jets have been flying missions over Iraq since August, and the RAF since September. Pentagon officials later confirmed that Iranian jets had taken part in bombing raids.
Iranian advisers are known to have been embedded with the Iraqi army and militia forces fighting Isil. But this is the first proof that the Islamic Republic and the countries it famously termed the “Great and Little Satan” – America and Britain – are taking part in missions on the same side.
The footage was filmed on Sunday by an Al-Jazeera crew reporting on the key battle for Saadiya and Jalula, two towns north-east of Baghdad not far from the Iranian border.
Saadiya was captured in the great surge Isil staged across much of Iraq in June and became a major jihadist base, while Jalula, a mostly Kurdish town with some Sunni Arab presence, has exchanged hands on a number of occasions.
Al-Jazeera claimed the jet belonged to the Iraqi air force, which was given half a dozen Russian-built Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack jets by Iran at the outset of the war in June.
However, analysts from IHS Jane’s Defence identified the jet as a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, a relic of America’s pre-1979 alliance with the Shah’s Iran. The Phantom was a staple of the US Air Force in the Vietnam war.
The only other country still using Phantoms in the Middle East, Jane’s said, was Turkey, which has pledged not to take a direct part in the fight against Isil.
“This footage is the first visual evidence of direct IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) involvement in the conflict,” Jane’s noted.
After Jane’s claims were drawn to their attention, Pentagon and British defence sources both confirmed that US and RAF personnel operating in Iraq were already aware of the Iranian air force’s presence.
“We have indications that they did indeed fly air strikes with F-4 Phantoms in the past several days,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman.
Iran is not part of the formal coalition drawn up to take on Isil in Iraq and Syria, in which France and several Gulf nations are flying sorties as well as Britain and the US.
The British and American governments have always been keen to stress that there is no direct co-ordination with Iran.
But earlier in the autumn, American jets bombed positions in the town of Amerli north of Baghdad shortly before it was retaken from Isil by Iraqi ground troops assisted by Iranian-backed Shia militia.
As if to emphasise the point that the US was effectively providing air cover for an old enemy – many of those Shia militia fought against the American and British presence in Iraq after the 2003 invasion – Qasim Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds force, made a highly publicised victory tour of Amerli.
Mr Suleimani oversees all Iranian military assistance to Shia militias abroad, and is regarded as a powerful eminence grise of the regime.
Until his presence in Amerli, though, he rarely allowed himself to be photographed.
Despite the lack of formal collaboration, the Iranians, British and Americans seem to have an informal arrangement over zones of influence. According to regular Ministry of Defence and Pentagon releases, most coalition air attacks in Iraq are either in the north, in support of Kurdish forces fighting on a front line on the southern edge of the Kurdish autonomous region, or in western Iraq.
The Saadiya operation was near the Iranian border to the east.
“It is unlikely that Iran would become a fully fledged member of the coalition,” one defence source said. “But we hope that they would align themselves with the direction that the coalition are taking.” A Pentagon official was quoted by the Huffington Post website as saying that because the US was operating in Iraq with the permission of the Baghdad government, it could not put pressure on the Iraqis over the Iranian involvement.
“We’re there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, so it’s not for us to say what they should allow, what they shouldn’t allow,” the official said.
Nevertheless, the presence of Iranian, British and American forces fighting alongside each other is a sign of shifting alliances in the Middle East and warming ties, particularly as talks over the Iranian nuclear programme continue.
This closeness is causing unease in majority Sunni countries, particularly in the Gulf, which regards Iran as a major destabilising influence in the region – as do, officially, Britain and the US.
Until recently, both countries were insisting that the use of military force against Iran over its nuclear programme remained “on the table”.
Iran’s rivals, like Saudi Arabia, insist that there will be no solution to the Isil crisis until President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is removed.
Prince Turki bin Faisal, the influential former Saudi ambassador to both Britain and America, said yesterday that Iran should be forced to withdraw its support for Mr Assad.
Without Iranian support, Mr Assad would be gone in a few weeks, he said at a conference in London organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday.