Iran’s Qasem Soleimani wields power behind the scenes in Iraq

I wrote this artcile for BBC Online.

A few years ago, it was almost impossible to find a photograph of Qasem Soleimani.

Now Iranian TV channels show documentaries about him, and his picture is on the front page of many newspapers.

For Gen Soleimani the time has come to emerge from the shadows and reap what he has been sowing for decades as head of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.


He is reported to be in Baghdad now, planning a strategy to curb further advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Gen Soleimani has faced the jihadist group before, but in neighbouring Syria.

He is widely credited with delivering the strategy that has helped President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide against rebel forces and recapture key cities and towns.

Iran has always denied having a military presence in Syria, but last weekend three more members of the Quds Force were buried in Iran after public funerals.

Qasem Soleimani was not present, but he has attended other funerals of those killed in Syria.

Behind the scenes

The crisis in Iraq has raised the possibility of co-operation between two arch-enemies – Iran and the United States.

Though it might seem strange, it happened before over both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran provided military intelligence to the US to support its invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, and in 2007 Washington and Tehran sent representatives to Baghdad for face-to-face talks over the deteriorating security situation there.

Back then, as now, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was battling spiralling sectarian violence.

In an interview with the BBC last year, former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker recalled the crucial behind-the-scenes role, which General Soleimani played in the Baghdad talks.

‘[Iran’s ambassador to Iraq] called repeatedly for breaks,” he said.

“I couldn’t quite figure out why, and then later discovered that whenever I said something that he didn’t have covered in his points, he would need to call back to Tehran for guidance – he was that tightly controlled. On the other end of the phone was Qasem Soleimani.”

(You can see the interview in my film about Ahmadinejad)

Mr Crocker also felt Gen Soleimani’s influence when he served as US ambassador to Afghanistan.

“My Iranian interlocutors on Afghanistan made clear that while they kept the foreign ministry informed, ultimately it was Gen Soleimani that would make the decisions,” he told the BBC.

Over the last few years, Gen Soleimani’s role in Iran’s foreign affairs has become more public.

He is no longer the hidden figure at the end of the phone line.

These days he is the proud face of Iran, the go-to man when a crisis happens.

Training role

Last year, Syrian rebels killed an Iranian film-maker in Syria and captured some exclusive footage that gave a fascinating insight into the Revolutionary Guards’ operations in Syria.

The footage, which was circulated on the internet, showed how Iran had helped the Syrian government set up a volunteer militia called the National Defence Force.

Its fighters took up arms to fight alongside the exhausted Syrian army to push back Sunni-dominated rebels, including ISIS.

There are indications Gen Soleimani could now be applying the same strategy in Iraq.

Sources in Baghdad told BBC Persian on Saturday that more than 100 members of the Quds Force had arrived in Iraq to give military advice.

Although it has not been confirmed officially, BBC Persian reporters in Iraq say that it is widely presumed that Iran is helping mobilise the Shia recruits now signing up to fight alongside the demoralised Iraqi army.

Before the 2007 Iran-US talks, the Americans arrested five Iranians in Iraq, accusing them of being Revolutionary Guards involved in “training Shia militias”.

Seven years later, Gen Soleimani is able to operate far more openly inside Iraq as the Americans, once more, seek his help to pull the country back from the brink.

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