Spotted—Iran’s Top Agent in Iraq
Ghassem Soleymani hangs with Peshmerga fighters
Over the weekend of Oct. 3, a photo appeared on Kurdish social media depicting Iranian Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleymani—Tehran’s top agent in the Middle East—chilling with Peshmerga fighters in Tuz Kharmato, near Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
As head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, Soleymani sure does get around. He previously showed up in the company of Shia militia fighters in the town of Amerli, on Iraq’s border with Iran, after the militia defeated Islamic State forces in the area.
Soleymani could have pressing reasons for being in Tuz Kharmato.
The Kurdish fighters in Tuz Kharmato are loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. The PUK and its founder Jalal Talabani both have long histories with Iran.
Iran backed PUK fighters during their early rebellions against Iraq back in the 1970s. In the ’80s, the guerrillas even operated out of bases in Iran. During the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s when the PUK Peshmerga fought against Peshmerga loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Iran backed the PUK.
It’s an odd partnership borne out of common enemies. The secular socialist PUK has many values and goals that often run counter to those of the clerics in Iran. And Tehran—though historically willing to back Kurdish guerrillas against enemies in Iraq—is careful not to give too much support to the Kurds.
Iran deals with its own Kurdish opposition groups, and doesn’t want widespread Kurdish nationalist passions to embolden separatists within its own borders.
But Islamic State is viciously anti-Shia and considers the Iranians to be apostates. After the militants’ swift march through northern Iraq in June, the Iranians rallied every friend they’d ever had to strike back.
Today PUK Peshmerga forces control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as well as Khanaqin near the Iranian border. Pesh based in Khanaqin have fought a protracted battle with militants in the nearby town of Jalawla.
Based on tips from Kurdish sources, in August both Al Jazeera and War Is Boring reported that Iranian forces took part in the fight for Jalawla.
However, War Is Boring photographer Matt Cetti-Roberts went to Jalawla at around the same time Iranian forces were alleged to have been there. He saw no sign of the Iranians. The PUK told him Iran provided no direct military support.
But regardless of whether Iranians have been directly coordinating with the PUK, Tehran is heavily invested in the battle against Islamic State. Iraqi troops have been spotted with Iranian weapons. Iranian planes drop bombs on Sunni militants.
There are widespread reports of Iranian advisers traveling with Iraqi army troops and Shia militia forces. It makes sense that Tehran would also make overtures to the PUK Peshmerga.
Though the PUK and Shia militias both have ties to Iran and share a common enemy in Islamic State, the two groups haven’t been getting along well as of late. It’s possible Soleymani is in Tuz Kharmato to help the groups reconcile.
Tensions have increased between the two over their conflicting tactics and goals. There have been reports of abductions of Sunni Arabs and Turkmen in the areas around Amerli and Tuz Kharmato. Shia militiamen are the prime suspects.
The Shia volunteers have also reportedly barred Peshmerga troops from entering Amerli.
Tuz Kharmato is part of the front under the command of Peshmerga Maj. Gen. Abdulla Musla Boor—known in Kurdistan as the “Dark Lion.” When War Is Boring interviewed him and his officers this summer, they said that it’s their duty to protect innocent people regardless of sect or ethnicity.
Boor also stated in no uncertain terms that he believes moderate Sunni groups that already oppose Islamic State need more support from the West. It would broaden the coalition of forces actively fighting Islamic State and undermine the militants’ hold on Sunni territories.
But the infighting—not to mention sectarian abductions and killings by Iranian proxies—make it hard to build the sort of inclusive coalition many Iraqis see as necessary to defeating Islamic State.
That doesn’t mean Soleymani—Tehran’s top man in the region—isn’t in Iraq right now, desperately trying to get people together to oppose the militants.