Soleimani’s return to lead Mosul push causes friction
LONDON - He’s back. Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds revolutionary guards force, was reported to have crossed into Iraq in mid-August to play a “major role” in the liberation of Mosul from its Islamic State (ISIS) occupiers.
Iran’s allies in the predominantly Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias have presented it as a fait accompli that Soleimani would play a central part in a forthcoming offensive to recover the mainly Sunni city.
It is unlikely, however, that other forces ranged against ISIS — from the Kurdish peshmerga to Sunni tribal elements to the US-led international coalition — will accept what appears to be an Iranian attempt to dominate the campaign to reconquer Iraq’s second largest city.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, constrained by having to juggle the demands of a plethora of domestic and international allies, has praised the positive role of Iranian advisers in the confrontation with ISIS but he has yet to spell out where Soleimani might fit into the campaign.
With the Americans conceding that their efforts to reconstitute the Iraqi Army have been slower and less successful than anticipated, Abadi has been pushed towards a greater reliance on the Iranian-backed militias, despite the danger that their presence in Sunni areas might generate more sectarian strife.
The Americans, who have their own advisers in Iraq to assist local elements, such as the Iraqi Army and the Kurds, say they do not know for sure that Soleimani is there.
“I can’t confirm what Soleimani is doing,” US Army Colonel Chris Garver, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said on August 16th. “If he’s in the country or not, I’m not sure.”
As for the Iranian-backed Shia militias, estimated to number 100,000 men, the Americans had not spotted any of them near peshmerga lines south of Mosul, Garver said.
The PMF announced Soleimani’s latest mission on August 6th. “The presence of General Soleimani in the operations to free Mosul and Nineveh province is necessary and General Soleimani is the greatest adviser that has helped the Iraqi government in the war against ISIS,” PMF spokesman Ahmad al- Asadi said.
Iran’s Fars News Agency quoted Asadi as saying that Iranian advisers were in Iraq “at the request of the Iraqi government” and had played a key role in most operations conducted by the PMF.
Asadi was speaking just a week after he revealed that Abadi had formalised the role of the militias in February by ordering the PMF’s incorporation as an “independent military formation” within Iraq’s security forces.
That would put it on a par with Soleimani’s al-Quds Force, the elite wing of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which conducts foreign military operations and controls proxy Shia forces such as the PMF across the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya Television aired a related document it identified as a signed executive order from Abadi which, among other things, confirmed that the militia formation would include its own leadership, a general staff, fighting formations and brigades.
The reported order could be interpreted as an attempt by the government to exert state control over the militias. It establishes them as part of the Iraqi armed forces, linked to the Iraqi general command. Political activity within its ranks is nominally banned. However, the move could equally be seen as a further Iranian encroachment into the national decision-making process of Abadi’s Shia-dominated government.
Tehran has been steadily increasing its influence in Iraq in recent years, particularly after US forces withdrew in December 2011.
On the ground, it is too early to say what part the Shia militias will play in the liberation of Mosul, despite the propaganda surrounding Soleimani’s central role. As of mid-August most attention focused on the success of the Kurdish peshmerga in recapturing villages within 20km of the city as part of preparations for a final push later in the year.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, head of Al Arabiya, recently speculated that Iran could become the graveyard of the Iranian regime, which would be bogged down in a country where even the support of fellow Shias is limited.
“The (Shia) majority runs the state and does not need an external power because it is the dominant power,” he wrote in Saudi Arabia’s Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
“Most of the intelligence and logistical support is provided by the Americans and most of the fighting is carried out by Iraqis.”
Garver, meanwhile, confirmed there was no American coordination with Iran. “We’re not working with them in any way,” he briefed Pentagon correspondents.
“We are coordinating with the government of Iraq and we’ve got 60 other nations that we’re coordinating with in support of that fight.”
Garver was asked whether he thought swapping ISIS with Iranian-backed militias was just trading one terrorist group for another.
“I think any force that’s operating inside the country of Iraq is of concern to the government of Iraq,” he said. “It’s their issue to be concerned with.”