Iraqi Cleric Urges Vigilance Against Western Interference

SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – The influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Friday urged vigilance against Western political interference in Iraqi affairs but stopped short of opposing the American-led military campaign against the Islamic State extremists. “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 delicate challenge facing the United States and its allies in their efforts to push back the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State without either 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 extremist 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 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 balanced. While he warned Iraqis to guard against foreign interference, he also appeared to endorse the idea that foreign help may be required to push back the Sunni extremists, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.“Iraq may be in need of assistance from its friends and brothers to combat black terrorism,” Ayatollah Sistani said. But he insisted that “preserving its sovereignty and independence must be the most important thing and must be taken into consideration.”

Underscoring the point, French Rafale attack planes 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 sections of territory in 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.

He indicated 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.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was visiting a military cemetery in Normandy on Friday, praised the French airstrikes, The Associated Press reported. “The French were our very first ally and they are there again for us,” he was quoted as saying by The A.P.

The strikes come as Mr. Hollande seeks to reinvigorate his presidency, which is suffering from France’s 10 percent unemployment rate and flat economic growth. His approval rating of 13 percent makes him the most unpopular president in recent memory.

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, for his part, has framed the fight against the Islamic State as important for French national security.

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