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Iran's president: Ready to help Iraq if asked

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's president pledged Saturday to help Iraq fight militants surging through its north if asked, including potentially assisting U.S. forces if it decides on taking military action.

The comments by President Hassan Rouhani don't necessarily represent the last word on any military assistance to Iraq in its battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. All final military decisions in the Islamic Republic rest with its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, a semiofficial news agency quoted a local official who said more than 4,200 people already volunteered to go into Iraq to protect Shiite shrines there. Speaking Saturday at a news conference, Rouhani said Iran would study any request for help from Iraq, but that it has "no option but to confront terrorism."

"Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law," he said. "Entry of our forces (into Iraq) to carry out operations has not been raised so far. It's unlikely that such conditions will emerge."

Iran has built close political and economic ties with Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Many influential Iraqi Shiites, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have spent years in exile in the Islamic Republic.

Rouhani also said Iran would consider assisting the U.S. as well in Iraq. "When the U.S. takes action against (the militants), then one can think about cooperation," Rouhani said. The Islamic State has vowed to take the battle all the way to Baghdad and the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, home to the faith's most revered shrines. That's worried some in Iran, a regional Shiite powerhouse.

A local council official in Tehran said more than 4,200 Iranians have registered as volunteers to be dispatched to Iraq to protect Shiite shrines. Mohammad Reza Zomorrodian was quoted by the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying that registration began Friday. It was not clear if the volunteers will be allowed to cross the border into Iraq.

Rouhani also suggested the Islamic State could not have made such swift gains on its own, saying "other issues and coordination were involved." Figures from Hussein's deposed government as well as other Sunni militants are believed to have allied with the Islamic State in its campaign against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

"Those defeated (in elections) have resorted to bullets. This is a grave blunder," Rouhani said.

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