Iranian state media reported on Saturday that an Iranian pilot had been killed in Iraq, apparently confirming rumors that the Shia power deployed fighter jets to the country last week in support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
Maliki, a Shia Muslim who spent many years in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, is fighting off a challenge to his regime by Sunni militants who have declared in a caliphate in the northwest of Iraq.
Iran backs Maliki’s government even as its neighbor threatens to unravel. Besides the Sunni uprising in the northwest, which extends into the east of Syria, the Kurds in the north, already autonomous, demand a referendum on independence. If both succeed, it would cut off Iran’s access to its ally in Syria, President Bashar Assad, whom it has also supported militarily in his war against Sunni rebels.
The BBC reported last week there was strong evidence that Iran had supplied Sukhoi Su-25 jet aircraft to Iraq.
Iran’s official news agency said an Iranian pilot died defending sites holy to Shia Muslims in the city of Samarra but did not provide details about the circumstances of his death.
Russia earlier sent jets to Iraq and last month Syrian planes struck Sunni forces in the country with Maliki’s government’s approval.
Iraq’s own air force was largely destroyed during the 2003 Western invasion, led by the United States, that toppled Hussein. The delivery of several dozen American F-16 fighter jets has been put on hold due to the deteriorating security situation in the country.
While stopping short of demanding Maliki’s resignation in exchange for military support, the United States have called for a more inclusive government in Baghdad. Many Iraqi Sunnis support or condone the uprising, even if it is spearheaded by radical Islamists, feeling marginalized by Maliki’s Shia.