U.S. believes Iran launched air raids on Islamic State in Iraq

By Phil Stewart WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has indications that Iran has carried out air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq in recent days in what appeared to be the first such operations by Iran's air force, U.S. officials said on Wednesday. A senior Iranian official denied that Iran had launched any such strikes. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had indications that Iran had used F-4 Phantoms to launch the raids in Diyala near the Iranian border in the last several days. An Iraqi security expert gave a slightly different account, saying the strikes took place 10 days ago. "It is true that Iranian planes hit some targets in Diyala. Of course the government denies it because they have no radars," Hisham al-Hashemi told Reuters. A Pentagon spokesman declined to go into details about the air raids during a media briefing. Officials said the strikes appeared to be the first carried out by the Iranian air force. Diyala is an ethnically mixed province, where the Iraqi army, backed by Kurdish Peshmerga and Shi’ite militias, drove Islamic State out of several towns and villages last month. A British-based analyst said footage on Al Jazeera television of an F-4 Phantom striking Islamic State in Diyala was the first visual evidence of direct Iranian air force involvement in the conflict. "Iran and Turkey are the only regional operators of the F-4, and with the location of the incident not far from the Iranian border and Turkey's unwillingness to get involved in the conflict militarily, indicators point to this being an Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force aircraft," said Gareth Jennings of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declined to comment. "I am not going to make any announcements, or confirm or deny the reported military action of another country in Iraq. It is up to them (the Iranians) or up to the Iraqis to do that if it did indeed take place,” Kerry told a news conference in Brussels. The White House reiterated U.S. policy against cooperating with Iran in the fight against Islamic State. "At this point our calculation about the wisdom of cooperating with the Iranians hasn't changed. We're not going to do it," spokesman Josh Earnest said. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a Washington news briefing on Tuesday that it was up to the Iraqis to manage their air space. “It's the Iraqi air space and (Iraq’s) to deconflict. We are not coordinating with nor are we deconflicting with Iranian military,” Kirby said. Deconflict in military parlance means to avoid overlap. The prospect of U.S. and Iranian militaries separately carrying out air strikes in the same country raises questions about the degree of advanced coordination that might be needed, even indirectly, to avoid a mishap. The U.S. military detailed on Wednesday 11 more strikes in Iraq. But officials noted that there were no U.S. air operations or American troops on the ground in the areas where they said Iranian aircraft had operated. 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 (Islamic State) targets in Iraq. Any cooperation in such strikes with America is also out of question for Iran," the senior official said on condition of anonymity. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in Brussels for a meeting of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, said he was not aware of any Iranian air strikes. While Shi'ite Iran and the United States have been at odds for decades, they have a common enemy in Islamic State, the hardline Sunni group that has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria. Iran backs the Iraqi Shi'ite militias which are battling Islamic State and has sent senior commanders to help advise the Iraqi army and militia operations since the group took parts of northern Iraq in the summer. Iraqi officials say there are no Iranian troops on its soil. (Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Lesley Wroughton, Raheem Salman and Dominic Evans; Editing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp)