Iraq hasn't asked Iran for help against militants

Iraqi government forces stand guard next to a tank on June 24, 2014 in the western city of Ramadi
Iraqi government forces stand guard next to a tank on June 24, 2014 in the western city of Ramadi (AFP Photo/)

Tehran (AFP) - Iraq has not asked Iran for help against Sunni militants, its ambassador to Tehran said Tuesday as Baghdad government forces held off assaults on a key town and oil refinery.

The remarks by Mohammed Majid al-Sheikh came after Iranian leaders repeatedly said they were ready to assist Baghdad against the insurgency that has swept up a swathe of northern and north-central Iraq.

"Iran has played an important role in supporting Iraq politically," Sheikh said at a news conference in Tehran.

However, "we have not asked any country to come and defend Iraq and the Iraqi people," he said.

Iran, the predominant Shiite power in the Middle East, has said it will support ally Iraq and protect its Shiite holy places against the Sunni Arab militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

But both President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have stopped short of saying what form such assistance might take.

In Tehran, hundreds of people rallied on Tuesday afternoon in support of defending Iraq's Shiite holy sites.

US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged "intense" American support on Tuesday for the Baghdad government's fightback against the insurgents and called for Iraqi unity.

Sheikh said Baghdad had "a strategic agreement with the Americans which depends on an Iraqi request" for military assistance.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at the weekend he was against any foreign intervention in Iraq, accusing the United States of seeking to "take advantage of fanatics with no will of their own," a reference to ISIL.

Sheikh denied reports that the commander of the Quds Force covert operations unit of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Suleimani, was in Iraq assisting the army.

The reports were the work of "terrorist media who seek to sow discord between Iraq and other countries, like Iran," he said.