Beleaguered Iraqis Court Iranian Mastermind of the Shiites Who Fought the U.S.

Eric Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon — New York Times June 13, 2014

Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, flew to Iraq this week with dozens of his officers to advise the country’s beleaguered leadership about how to blunt the advance of militant forces on Baghdad, American officials said Friday.

In meeting with General Suleimani, the Iraqis are hosting the mastermind of Iran’s strategy in Iraq when Iraqi Shiite militias trained by Iran fought American troops. The general is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad.

The contact suggests that the Iraqis see the possibility of significant aid from Iran as a means of pressuring the United States to come to Iraq’s defense with aid of its own. And it highlights the complex web of alliances brought to the fore in the current crisis; both the United States and Iran, traditional antagonists, see it in their interest to come to the aid of an embattled partner to repel the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

“Clearly, any arrival and activation of Iranian military personnel on the ground in Iraq would be extremely significant, symbolically but also practically,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The terrorism threat in Iraq is perceived strongly by both Iran and the U.S.”

The American officials who described General Suleimani’s visit to Iraq spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing information in classified intelligence reports. But officials on Friday dismissed any notion that the United States and Iran were formally coordinating their efforts to counter the ISIS threat.

“We’re not talking to the Iranians about Iraq,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. “What we’ve said is that all of Iraq’s neighbors, including the Iranians, need to not do things to destabilize the situation even further, to not try to promote any sectarian tensions.”

Mr. Lister said it was unlikely that both Iran and the United States could play an active role in countering militancy in Iraq at the same time, but the strange-bedfellows element of the situation had led even Iran and Israel — bitter historical enemies — to find common cause.

“Everybody has an interest in checking ISIS,” said Amos Yadlin, a retired general and former head of Israeli military intelligence who is now executive director of Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies.

Mr. Yadlin warned that the United States should not let any shared interest it has with Iran in the current crisis cloud its judgment as Western nations negotiate to get Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

“If the price for getting cooperation on ISIS is giving Iran a free pass on the nuclear issue, then Israel is worried,” he said.

American intelligence and military officials said Iran had sent some weaponry and equipment to Iraq, but discounted news reports on Friday that the Quds had sent hundreds of troops to reinforce the Iraqi Army, whose northern divisions have folded in the face of the Sunni militants. But American officials said they were monitoring the reports closely, expressing concerns that sending Shiite militias into Iraq would only further destabilize a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the country. “We encourage all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, to play a constructive role,” Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters on Friday.

Asked what such a role might entail, Admiral Kirby said: “They could stop supporting extremist networks, right? That’s one thing.”

A senior Iraqi official on Friday warned, however, that his country might be forced to turn to Iran for military help if none were forthcoming from the United States — even as he insisted he was unaware of any Iranian military units in his country at the moment.

The official, who is an adviser to Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said that the Iraqi government wanted air support and intelligence sharing, in particular, from the United States.

“What changes this is if the U.S. does not help, Iran will come in and this is really dangerous,” the adviser said. “If they don’t help I don’t think Iran will let the Iraqi government collapse; they will fight and fight very hard.”

The Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to make press statements, was severely critical of the Obama administration for its handling of the Iraq crisis, and for failing to better prepare the country’s military for an emergency.

More than a year ago, General Suleimani assured Mr. Maliki in a meeting in Baghdad that if Iraq was ever in jeopardy, Mr. Maliki could mobilize Iraqi Shiite militias to fight on behalf of the government, an American official said. These would be similar to the so-called special groups — Iraqi Shiites trained by the Iranian Quds Force in Iran — that battled the Americans during the Iraq war.

After the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, General Suleimani took on the mission of expanding Iran’s influence in the country, tying down the American military and, ultimately, encouraging its exit — paramount objectives for an Iranian government that was determined to be a major power in the region and that felt threatened by expanding American military presence on its western and eastern flanks.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who came to know the Quds Force commander’s influence when he served in Iraq, once described General Suleimani as “a truly evil figure” in a letter to Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary. In another letter, he acknowledged the influence that General Suleimani had brought to bear in Iraq. “The most sobering surprise of the week was probably the extent of direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi political intrigue,” General Petraeus wrote in an April 2008 letter to Mr. Gates.

Even as the Quds Force under General Suleimani armed and trained Shiite militias in Iraq, he hosted some of Iraq’s most senior politicians. By stoking violence and then mediating the conflict, former American officials say, he could make himself indispensable and keep the Iraqis off balance.

In 2011, the United States Treasury Department put General Suleimani on its sanctions list because American officials said he had been involved in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

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