Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, has returned to Iraq, according to Akram al Kabi, a cleric who is head of the Iranian-backed Harakat al Nujaba (HN). The Iraqi militia is a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of Iraqi militias.
Soleimani was purportedly spotted near Mosul on Oct. 17, the day of the siege’s launch, and was confirmed to be in the Kurdistan Regional Government territory on Oct. 23, before flying to Tehran on Oct. 28 to visit the families of Iranian soldiers killed in Syria. Confirmed photos of Soleimani in Iraq since his visit to Tehran have yet to emerge. Soleimani is banned from international travel under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the Iran nuclear deal, until Oct. 2020.
Under Soleimani’s supervision, Kabi formed HN in 2013 out of the Asaib Ahl al Haq militia, itself an offshoot of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, for the purpose of fighting in Syria. Nujaba joined the PMF in 2014 when it was formed following the fatwa of Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Numbering 10,000, HN is currently sustaining operations in the Mosul and Aleppo combat theaters.
Designated by the US Treasury in 2008 for threatening Iraq’s stability and planning attacks against US forces, Kabi is close to Iranian officials and openly declares loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the velayat-e faghih (guardianship of the jurisprudence), the founding principle of the Islamic Republic. Last November, Kabi told Iraqi media he would overthrow the government in Baghdad if ordered by Khamenei. During a visit to Iran in late August and early September, Kabi was given a warm reception, unprecedented in the scale of Iranian media publicity surrounding a Shiite militia leader’s visit.
“Iranian advisers and commander Qassem Soleimani are on Iraqi soil,” Kabi told Iraq’s Al Sumaria media outlet on Nov. 6. “Iran has assisted us since the beginning of Iraq’s occupation and has not only placed its skill and weapons at our disposal, but Iranians have sacrificed their blood and given many martyrs.”
In separate remarks to Al Alam two days ago, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the PMF operations commander and deputy to Soleimani, also thanked Tehran, without whom “our successes would not be possible.” Muhandis announced that the “Popular Mobilization Forces enjoy direct and fundamental support from Iran, and this is per the request of the Iraqi government.” During the past summer, senior Iraqi government officials called Soleimani an official military advisor to Iraq.
Kabi was photographed on Nov. 5 inspecting HN positions in the western Mosul axis. The images and statements of Kabi were reported by IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency.
“The Mosul operation is the final stage of cleansing Iraq from the filth of terrorists,” Kabi told his fighters, “and we must then take cultural actions to destroy takfiri thought in this country.” The militia leader claimed that “America and terrorist mercenaries will continue their ominous conspiracies to destabilize this country.”
The PMF, including HN, are moving to cut off the Islamic State in Mosul, capture the town of Tal Afar west of the city, and push unto the border with Syria. Senior PMF commanders and Kabi have openly discussed shifting into Syria following Mosul under the narrative of fighting the Islamic State.