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U.S. takes help in Iraq from where it can, regardless of source

WASHINGTON -- The urgent fight to keep Islamic State forces from taking over more of Iraq has led the Obama administration to tolerate, and in some cases even approve, things it once would have loudly protested.

When Iraqi Shia militias, backed by Iran and long branded illegal by the administration, retook the town of Amerli from the Sunni Muslim extremists last week, U.S. officials breathed a sigh of relief.

Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' Qods Force and usually described as an archenemy of the United States, reportedly was present during the battle and was seen days later in an Internet-posted photo shaking hands with a militia fighter.

Farther north in Iraq, Kurdish fighters have occupied the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a prize the Kurds have long claimed but which lies outside regional borders recognized by both Baghdad and Washington. Far from insisting the fighters withdraw, the administration is glad that someone is defending the city from the Islamic State.

Such legal and policy niceties have become a luxury in the battle to push back the militants whom President Barack Obama on Friday called "a savage organization" that "poses a significant threat" to the United States and its allies.

Risk of problems later

It is not, as one administration official said with significant understatement, an ideal situation, and there is widespread recognition that situations are being created on the ground that are likely to cause problems in the future.

But for now, the battle being waged in Iraq is one that has made at least indirect confederates of forces that are not even on speaking terms.

While the administration has acknowledged discussing the Iraqi crisis with Iranian officials on the margins of separate talks about Iran's nuclear program, "we do not coordinate military action or share intelligence with Iran and have no plans to do so," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Friday.

"At the same time, we have been clear that ISIL," one of several acronyms for the Islamic State, "represents a threat not only to the United States, but also -- and most immediately -- to the entire region. We believe that all countries, regardless of their differences, should work toward the goal of degrading and ultimately defeating ISIL," Meehan said.

Asked whether there was a role for Iran in the international coalition the administration is forming to fight the militants in Iraq and ultimately in Syria, a senior administration official this week said, "I don't know."

But, the official acknowledged, "they already . . . have a role on the ground."

Iran as a factor

Despite Tehran's concerns about separatism within its own Kurdish community, it "was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition" to fight the militants, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said late last month during a visit of Iran's foreign minister.

Iran is also believed to have conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State, according to U.S. officials.

The United States has vied with Iran for influence in Iraq ever since the majority Shia government was installed after the 2003 U.S. invasion that overthrew Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. Iran was accused of supplying the improvised explosive devices to the militias that used them to blow up hundreds of American soldiers during the previous decade.

The United States is not the only actor on the ground that finds the situation uncomfortable. While the administration credited U.S. airstrikes with helping drive the Islamic State out of Amerli, militiamen on the ground restated their enmity toward the Americans and said the strikes were inconsequential in the victory they had won.

Iran's Fars News Agency said Friday that the idea that U.S. action had been decisive in Amerli was a figment of the American imagination. "The West has launched media hype to show the U.S. as the savior of Iraq," the agency said, quoting an Iranian military source.

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