Soleimani, symbol of Iran’s power, infuriates Iraqis
Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) general overseeing Shia militias engaged in the battle for Falluja in Iraq, used to be a man for whom the term “shadowy” might have been coined.
As commander of the elite Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign operations arm, since 1998, his unacknowledged role was to mastermind Iran’s clandestine military operations beyond its frontiers. However, since the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) began more than a year-and-a-half ago, Iran’s “Shadow Commander” has emerged into the light of day.
From the autumn of 2014, battlefront snaps of the 59-year-old veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war have circulated on the internet and found their way into international newspapers. These days, he even has an Instagram account with more than 300,000 followers, although the Iranians recently complained it had been briefly shut down during a spat between Tehran authorities and the social media company.
Soleimani’s emergence as the visible manifestation of Iran’s hard power in the region appeared to be part of a deliberate strategy to underline Tehran’s central role in the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Even back in October 2014, Iran’s Fars News Agency was boasting of the “magnificent role of General Soleimani in the fight against the terrorists of [ISIS]”.
Even doubters concede that swift Iranian action helped prevent ISIS getting even further than it did in its swoop into Iraq in the middle of that year.
The downside of such a high profile is that Soleimani has emerged as the representative of a regime whose actions are viewed by some as domineering and interfering as much as they are supportive. In Iraq, such critics are not confined to the Sunni minority, where resistance to the role of Shia Iran might be expected to be sharpest.
During this year’s Baghdad demonstrations calling for government reform, spearheaded by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, protesters denounced Soleimani amid chants of “Iran out”. It was a development that highlighted the wish of at least part of the Shia community to distance itself from a sometimes overbearing ally.
It also underlined Sadr’s efforts to establish himself as a national rather than a sectarian leader and the desire of Iraq’s Shia clergy to assert their independence from their brethren in the Iranian Shia holy city of Qom.
No doubt in deference to this emerging anti-Iranian mood, Soleimani dropped back into the shadows for a while. Falluja, however, has brought him once again into the spotlight as a key player in the coalition of forces fighting to retake the overwhelmingly Sunni city. Pro-Iranian social media is now featuring him touring the battlefront alongside commanders of Shia militias.
Photos of him rallying Shia militiamen near Falluja during a May 28th visit raised cries of outrage from Sunni politicians in Anbar province. Member of Parliament Hamid al-Mutlaq objected: “We are Iraqis, not Iranians.” Blogger Saadallah al-Majid complained: “Iraq has turned into an Iranian province.”
Soleimani’s presence has a propagandist purpose as well as a military one. It is a way of stressing the message that Iran is the main power confronting ISIS rather than the United States, whose warplanes are engaged in the Falluja offensive.
As if to underline the point, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Units who accompanied Soleimani at the front, said the militia had not requested US air strikes and did not need them. It is a propaganda message that aims to put the militias centre stage in a way that marginalises the role of the formal Iraqi military.
The Shia forces at Soleimani’s disposal have formally promised not to enter the centre of Falluja where their presence might stir up tensions with its Sunni population. However, Aws al-Khafaji, the head of the Abu Fadhil al-Abbas militia, appeared to stoke those very tensions when he said in an online video that the battle was a chance to cleanse Iraq of “the cancer of Falluja”.
His veiled threat was rejected by the Baghdad government, while the risk of sectarian strife prompted Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, to call for restraint in the battle.
Following the example of their mentor Soleimani, some militia leaders aspire to turn themselves into an Iraqi version of Iran’s powerful IRGC with the ability to make and break governments. Some, at least, appear to view themselves as part of Iran’s confrontation with Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy.
It is not a vision that is likely to inspire the mass of Iraq’s Shia population whose demands focus on stability and an end to corruption. Those who oppose Soleimani’s role and chanted “Iran Out” have concluded that Iran is pursuing its own agenda rather than theirs.
Iran certainly prefers to fight ISIS in Iraq than to face the jihadists on its own border.
Soleimani may be held up as a hero by his acolytes in the struggle against ISIS but it is the Iraqis in the end who are paying the price.