Who is winning: General Soleimani or General Martin?
Nalia Radio and Television, a Kurdish television network in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, reported that Major-General Joseph Martin, commander of the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army, had been seen in the eastern side of Mosul. The US commander walked around neighbourhoods accompanied by Iraqi troops led by Lieutenant-General Riyadh Jalal, who is in charge of Iraqi security forces in Mosul.
Iraqis likely have not seen an American general walking the streets in a Sunni-majority area since 2011, when the United States pulled its forces from Iraq. It is surprising that a US general would be strolling freely around eastern Mosul; the area had been recaptured from Islamic State (ISIS) control only recently, after months of intense fighting.
Iraqi security forces had received direct support from US-led coalition air strikes as well as from some of the 5,000 American ground troops stationed around Mosul in preparation for an assault on the city. Since December 29th, US forces have been involved in front-line combat, including against ISIS fighters in the neighbourhood of al-Tayaran in the western side of Mosul.
The appearance of an American general in Mosul spurred much debate among Iraqis over the visit’s significance. Iraqis are more used to seeing Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, leader of al- Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, responsible for extraterritorial operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Al-Quds Force reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iraqis have been familiar with Soleimani since 2014, when he started visiting Iraqi cities to meet with militia fighters and generals stationed there. Many of these fighters are members of the Badr Organisation, an Iraqi political party with its own military wing. Many Badr members are Iraqis who fought alongside the Iranian Army — that is, against their home country of Iraq — during the 8-year Iraq-Iran War.
Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, some of the group’s fighters have joined the officially sanctioned Iraqi army and police force. Members of the Badr Organisation also make up some of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), an Iraqi state-sponsored paramilitary organisation composed of about 40 militias, mainly Shia, fighting against ISIS in western Mosul.
Soleimani took an office close to the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad in 2015 and from there led the PMU against ISIS in the Diyala and Saladin governorates, as well as in the cities of Falluja and Ramadi.
Human Rights Watch reported that the PMU wrought large-scale destruction in those areas and committed human rights violations, even though the American leadership had asked the Iraqi government to stop the PMU from participating in future battles.
It is worth noting that PMU forces did not directly participate in the liberation of eastern Mosul, after being tasked by the Iraqi government with surrounding the city of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border — on the periphery of the battlefield.
Soleimani’s leadership position within the PMU has been acknowledged by the Iraqi government, which has said that Iranian generals and other fighters are retained via a contract between the two governments. However, not much information has been released regarding the contents of the contract or how much Iranian generals and other fighters are being paid by Iraq.
Most PMUs are under the command of Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organisation, as well as PMU Deputy Chief Abu Mahdi Mohandes. Mohandes is wanted by Interpol for a deadly 1983 car bomb attack in Kuwait, the attempted hijacking of a Kuwaiti Airways aircraft in 1984 and the attempted assassination of Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Ahmad al- Jaber al-Sabah in 1985.
The question is why Martin appeared inside Mosul and why Soleimani did not. The presence of an American general in an Iraqi city interacting with Iraqi civilians might be a message to the people of Iraq that US forces will never abandon them to deal with the Iranians’ threats again. Iraqis’ memories of this go back to the 2003 invasion in which the United States was accused by many analysts of allowing Iran to interfere in Iraq’s political, economic and military affairs and of essentially delivering Iraq to Iran on a golden plate.
US President Donald Trump during his campaign said America “gave Iraq to Iran”, a point he reaffirmed last month in a tweet: “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the US has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!”
Such statements are encouraging to Iraqis who do not like Iran’s continued interference in their country and who want to believe that, under Trump’s US leadership, the Iranian influence in Iraq will be more limited.