At a ceremony commemorating a Revolutionary Guard commander recently slain in Iraq, Major General Qassem Soleimani hailed victory in Mosul against the Islamic State on July 10. Addressing the crowd with the flags of the Islamic Republic, Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestine and Iraq draped behind him, the Qods Force chief praised Iraqi actors, as well as Iran’s material and combat support to Iraq during the war. Soleimani, however, omitted US military support, which has been crucial in the campaign.
Answering to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Soleimani is in charge of Tehran’s Iraq portfolio. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry has called him an official adviser to its government.
The Iranian general began his speech by praising Hamid Taghavi and Shaban Nasiri, senior Qods Force commanders who have been killed in Iraq. The commemoration was held for Nasiri, who died in late May west of Mosul.
“Some of our Iraqi brothers consider themselves the soldiers of the great supreme leader,” Soleimani said. Indeed, a number of Iraqi Shiite militias are open about their loyalty to Khamenei and the velayat-e faqih, the Islamic Republic’s founding ideology.
“Sardar [honorific title given to generals] Taghavi was a commander, but in order to export a culture, he was a soldier at the front lines. Where in the world does a general grab a rifle and fight ahead of soldiers?”
Soleimani stressed that this operational procedure had a significant impact on a small number of senior Iranian forces forging relations with foreign militiamen.
Soleimani praised Tehran’s support of the Iraqi government throughout the war, crediting Khamenei. Iran’s defense ministry worked “triple shifts” to produce weapons, and dispatched Sukhoi Su-24s, which were seized from Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War, as soon as the Iraqi prime minister made the requested, according to Soleimani [note: the delivered warplanes were Su-25s].
He called Abu Mahdi al Muhandis – the Popular Mobilization Forces’ (PMF) operations commander – a “living martyr” and a “mujahid with [a record] of 40 years of resistance” who has held the “key to the Islamic Republic’s weapons depots.” Working alongside the Revolutionary Guard since the 1980s, Muhandis has been regularly photographed with Soleimani when the Iranian has visited Iraq. Soleimani has once again communicated that Muhandis is his top deputy in Iraq.
“We are the soldier of Abu Mahdi with honor, and consider this front as righteous and soldiering in it an honor,” Soleimani proclaimed.
The Iranian general also bequeathed the “living-martyr” title to Hadi (aka “Abu Hassan”) al Ameri, the head of the Guard-backed Badr Organization who is also parliamentarian and a senior PMF figure.
Soleimani furthermore praised Lebanese Hezbollah for “transferring experience to” the PMF: “I should kiss the hand of the great sayyid Hassan Nasrallah,” Soleimani said of the Hezbollah chief, who answers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Qods Force chief laid out what he considered were the factors for victory in Mosul and, more broadly, achievements against the Islamic State: the Iraqi and Syrian peoples, Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the PMF, the Iraqi armed forces, the Iraqi parliament and Prime Minister Hayder al Abadi.
In particular, Soleimani praised Sistani’s leadership and guidance throughout the years. He was keen to form a united front with Sistani and the Shiite clergy, who hold significant sway in Iraq particularly among the Shiite community, which is witnessing escalating infighting among its political groups.
“This pure tree [the PMF] was established following the fatwa of this great [Sistani], and the unity of the Iraq in at this date is rare,” he claimed. “The blood of Shiite youth spilled to save the Sunni youth, which is valuable and showed that none can divide this nation….all of these are owed to the effects of Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa.”
Sistani’s office clarified that the cleric’s intention behind the 2014 fatwa to mobilize and drive the Islamic State from the country was for Iraqis to join existing security forces. Former, pro-Tehran prime minister Nouri al Maliki instead formed the PMF, a conglomeration of Iraqi militias dominated by Guard-backed formations. Sistani, nevertheless, blessed the formation of militias tied to Shiite shrines that answer to him; at least one of these militias has accepted direct combat support from the Guard. There are rumors that Sistani may issue another fatwa to disband the PMF.
“We no longer see the effects of the Baath party in the Iraqi army, and this army is moving toward a national Islamic-national army and a hezbollahi army,” he said.
Soleimani appeared to be discussing the Iraqi Army, not referring to the armed forces as a whole. At face value, his claim that the Army is becoming more ideological is an exaggeration, as segments of the Army – particularly the US-trained Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), who have borne the brunt of the fighting in Mosul – have previously fought Guard-backed militias during the Second Gulf War and have acted as an institutional counterweight to Tehran.
His statement, however, has a kernel of truth to it. For years, Badr has been infiltrating the Iraqi security forces, to the extent that significant numbers of the Federal Police are Badr members; Badr also controls the Interior Ministry which commands the police. The Guard-backed Badr Organization controls the leadership and manning of the Iraqi Army 5th Division in Diyala province, as covered by Michael Knights at The Washington Institute. Soleimani’s statement may suggest plans for the continuation of this strategy in the post-Mosul environment, particularly as the Iraqi Army is rebuilding. The success of this plan, however, is far from clear at this point; the Iraqi army and the CTS have institutional relationships with the United States.
Soleimani praised the Iraqi parliament for approving the PMF as an official part of the Iraqi armed forces last year.
He echoed Tehran’s policy to eliminate US influence in Iraq. “Today the Iraqi army is a reliable army … and there is no need for any foreign force to impose itself over the Iraqi for the excuse of assistance, and Iraq will not permit the presence of any [foreign] armed forces.”
Soleimani excoriated the Islamic State as the most divisive force within Islam since the khawarij (“the seceders,” a sect that broke from the first caliphate and is known for extremism, divisive role in the first fitnah, or sedition, a period of civil war). “Those who thought … that Iran would kneel have themselves faced horrific events,” he said. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Qassem Soleimani: Islamic State was created to fight Iran]
While the Islamic State and the Guard Corps fight each other, they have both benefitted from the cycle of sectarian violence that each has perpetuated.
“[Iraq’s] Shia, Sunni and Kurds have reached the conclusion that they themselves must manage [Iraq] and not permit any foreigner to meddle,” he declared. Soleimani and Tehran, of course, have regularly meddled in internal Iraqi politics since 2003, to the extent that the selection of Iraqi prime ministers has required Tehran’s sign off.
As Iraq faces reconstruction, militant insurgency and provincial and parliamentary elections, Soleimani aspires to continue building enduring alliances in Iraq, particularly with the Shiite clergy, while using the vehicle of the PMF to legitimize proxies and encouraging figures affiliated with the latter to hollow out the Iraqi security forces. All the while, Soleimani seeks to project an image of supporting Iraq and its independence while orchestrating a strategy that may once again prove detrimental to the country’s stability.