US military says air strikes may be first of their kind and were not co-ordinated with US-led coalition against Islamic State.

F-4E Phantom fighter jets flown by Iran in a file photograph.
F-4E Phantom fighter jets flown by Iran in a file photograph. 

Iranian fighter jets have bombed Islamic State militants in eastern Iraq in recent days, the Pentagon has said, in a development that confirms Tehran’s determination to confront the jihadists.

The air raids mark an escalation in Iran’s role in a conflict where Tehran and Washington have no formal partnership but share a common enemy in the Isis group, which both governments view as a dangerous threat.

“We have indications that they [Iran] did indeed fly air strikes with F-4 Phantoms in the past several days,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told Agence France-Presse.

His comments came a few days after al-Jazeera ran footage of what appeared to be an ageing F-4 fighter similar to those used by the Iran’s air force attacking targets in the eastern province of Diyala.

Iranian forces have been active on the ground in Iraq assisting Shia militia and Baghdad government units but it is the first time the United States has confirmed the Iranian air force is conducting strikes against Isis.

Kirby said the United States was not co-ordinating with Iranian forces and it was up to the Iraqi government to oversee military flights by different countries.

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“We are flying missions over Iraq. We co-ordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” Kirby told reporters.

“Nothing has changed about our policy of not co-ordinating military activity with the Iranians.”

Even if there is no direct communication between the two countries’ forces, the Americans likely would be aware and easily monitor flights over Iraq by Iran’s less sophisticated air fleet. Iran acquired its F-4 fighters from the United States before the 1979 revolution that toppled the country’s pro-US monarchy.

A US air command centre in Qatar co-ordinates American fighters, bombers, drones and surveillance aircraft flying round-the-clock missions over Iraq along with other coalition warplanes from European governments as well as Australia and Canada.

The onslaught of Isis in Iraq has forged an unlikely alignment between Iran and the United States, and comes amid a US diplomatic drive to agree a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme. Officials acknowledge the two sides have discussed the war in Iraq on the margins of the nuclear talks.

But they remain deeply opposed over Syria, with Iran providing crucial military backing for President Bashar al-Assad while Washington has vowed to train a moderate rebel force to eventually confront the Damascus regime.

Analysts and former US officials say neither country appears ready to pursue elaborate co-operation for military operations in Iraq but there appears to be some level of tactical communication at least to avoid accidents.

Shia-ruled Iran has close ties to the government in Baghdad led by the same branch of Islam and Tehran quickly came to the neighbouring government’s aid after the Sunni jihadists overran Iraqi army units in western and northern Iraq earlier this year.

Iran also has provided Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft to Iraq and there is widespread speculation the planes are flown by Iranian pilots.

Iranian weapons have made their way to Shia fighters in Iraq, including 12.7mm rifles designed to penetrate armoured vehicles and multiple rocket launchers, according to a report by IHS Jane’s Defence.

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The commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, led a counter-attack in Iraq over the summer that pushed back Isis militants from a key route leading from Samarra to Baghdad, according to Lebanon’s Shia movement Hezbollah.

Suleimani flew to Baghdad on 10 June, hours after the Islamic State group seized the Iraqi city of Mosul, and hammered out a strategy “to secure Baghdad and its surroundings”, according to the Hezbollah’s al-Manar website.

Suleimani also reportedly has had a hand in operations against the Isis group in Amerli in the north and in eastern Iraq near the Iranian border. Iranian television last month released a rare photo of Suleimani in Iraq with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, promoting Tehran’s role in the fight against Isis.

Iran has declined to join the US-led coalition against the Isis group and publicly dismissed the air war, but Tehran’s Iraqi allies have benefited from the strikes against the jihadists.

Ingenuity keeps Iran’s Vietnam-war-era planes flying in fight against Isis.

Sanctions-hit state smuggles plane parts and cannibalises civil aircraft to keep old fighter jets airworthy.

Iran's F-4 jet fighter lands in Chabahar
Iran’s F-4 jet fighter lands in Chabahar during a military exercise. 

The Pentagon is confirming that footage of a combat plane in action against Islamic State (Isis) over Iraq is the Vietnam-war-era F-4 Phantom used by the Iranian air force.

Iran’s air force is reliant on American planes it had before the 1979 revolution as well as planes flown to Iran by Iraqi pilots, which were apparently intended as protection from US air strikes during the 1990-91 Gulf war.

It is a tribute to Iranian ingenuity that Iran has been able to keep the planes flying, given US sanctions in place since 1979. The Iranians have done so by a combination of smuggling – using shadow companies to buy parts – and cannibalising parts from civil aircraft. They have also engaged in reverse engineering, though this seldom produces a perfect match, resulting in weaker parts.

Justin Bronk, a research analyst in the military science programme at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said of the plane spotted over Iraq: “This is the equivalent of a late Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom D or E variants. We do not know which one.”

Bronk, who specialises in combat air power, added: “It is extremely impressive that the Iranians have kept this airworthiness given the ban on spare parts. The Iranian aerospace industry is one of the best in the world in keeping old aircraft airworthy.”

Many of the original pilots left Iran or were executed after the 1979 revolution. The present crop have to contend not only with ageing aircraft but also the fact that they are able to log only a small number of flying hours compared with, say, US pilots.

One consequence of the lack of experience and old planes has been at least two major crashes, including one that saw a plane hit a building. In 2005, a military transport plane hit a 10-floor building in Tehran after the pilot reported engine trouble, with a death toll reported of 128.

There could have been other accidents but the Iranian government has not volunteered any such information.

There are other countries in similar predicaments to the Iranians, most notably sanctions-hit North Korea, which flies planes not just from the Vietnam era but also from the 1950-53 Korean war.

“They have MiG-17s of Korean-war vintage,” said Bronk. He added that the North Koreans had suffered a spate of crashes recently. Bronk said the mainstay of the North Korean air force was the MiG-21 and that was from the Vietnam era, a counterpart to the F-4 reported to have been in action over Iraq.

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Iranian air force bombs Isis targets in Iraq, says Pentagon.

Washington and Tehran deny coordination as part of US-led coalition against Islamic State.

Iran’s air force has attacked targets of Islamic State (Isis) in eastern Iraq, the Pentagon has said.

Tehran has denied carrying out raids and acting in coordination with the US, which is leading a western-Arab coalition to defeat the jihadi group.

The Pentagon said air strikes in Iraq’s Diyala province were the first since Isis captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, insisted that the US has not coordinated military activities with Iran. He said the US continued to fly its own missions over Iraq and that it was up to the Iraqi government to avoid conflicts in its own airspace.

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“Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians,” Kirby told reporters in Washington.

A senior Iranian official said no raids had been carried out and Tehran had no intention of cooperating with Washington.

“Iran has never been involved in any air strikes against Daesh [Isis] targets in Iraq. Any cooperation in such strikes with America is also out of question for Iran,” the senior official told Reuters.

In Tehran, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri also denied any collaboration. Iran considered the US responsible for Iraq’s “unrest and problems”, he said, adding that the US would “definitely not have a place in the future of that country”.

Kirby’s comments followed reports that American-made F4 Phantom jets from the Iranian air force had been targeting Isis positions in Diyala. Jane’s Defence Weekly identified al-Jazeera footage of a jet flying over Iraq as an Iranian Phantom.

It had earlier been reported that Iran sent three Su-25 fighter jets to Iraq designed for close support of ground troops and that Iranian pilots flew Iraqi aircraft on combat missions.

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The anti-Isis campaign has raised the intriguing possibility that the US and Iran, enemies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, might work together against a common foe. The model has been seen as their brief cooperation against al-Qaida in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Talks about Iraq have taken place in the margins of the so-far inconclusive international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme.

But the US has repeatedly denied coordinating with Iran. Last month, following a personal letter sent by President Barack Obama to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the US national security adviser, Susan Rice, said that “we are in no way engaged in any coordination – military coordination – with Iran on countering Isil [another name for Isis]”.

Iranian F-4 fighter jets fly during a military parade in April.
Iranian F-4 fighter jets fly during a military parade in April 2014.

The two countries remain at odds over the crisis in Syria, with the US calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad and backing rebel forces. Iran, displaying far greater commitment, provides military and financial support for his regime. Tacit cooperation between Washington and Tehran over Iraq is seen as a classic example of the notion of “my enemy’s enemy becoming my friend”. Key US allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, fear any kind of US-Iranian rapprochement.

The US has not invited Iran to join the coalition fighting Isis, and Iran has said it would not join in any case. The grouping includes the UK, France and Australia as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain – Sunni Arab states which are deeply suspicious of Iran’s regional ambitions.

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Iran has been actively involved in supporting the Shia-led Baghdad government and in recent weeks has gradually raised the profile of its semi-covert presence in Iraq, especially the activities of General Qasim Suleimani, commander of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. Suleimani has coordinated the defence of Baghdad and worked with Shia miltias and Kurdish troops.

The US-led air campaign against Isis began on 8 August in Iraq and was extended into Syria in September. But several countries, including the UK, which operate in Iraq, refuse to do so in Syria – highlighting confusion about overall strategy.

News of Iran’s apparently widening role emerged as minsters from the coalition met at the Nato HQ in Brussels for a summit chaired by the US secretary of state, John Kerry.

Speaking at the summit, Kerry said the US-led coalition had inflicted serious damage on Isis, but that the fight against the militants could take years.

“We recognise the hard work that remains to be done,” Kerry said. “Our commitment will be measured most likely in years, but our efforts are already having a significant impact.”

“We will engage in this campaign for as long as it takes to prevail,” he added.

Talks are focusing on military strategy as well as ways to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining Isis and how to counter its slick propaganda, disseminated on social media. The meeting will discuss ways to send “counter-messages” to de-legitimise Isis, a senior US state department official told AFP.

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