Veiled women in the northern province of Raqqa, Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On March 1, when Iraq began its offensive against Islamic State north of Baghdad, every media report mentioned the prominence of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. All indications are that Suleimani and his throng of Iranian “advisers” are the most influential actors behind the latest effort aimed at removing Islamic State from Tikrit, Mosul and ultimately other parts of northern Iraq.
Because of the atrocities carried out by Islamic State, including the recent destruction of antiquities and attempts to erase not only the ethnic diversity of northern Iraq, but also the diverse history of the country, all the attention has been on the Sunni extremists. It is important, however, to shift focus to the role being played by radical Shi’ite militias and their Iranian handlers.
Suleimani is not a stranger to media attention. He was keenly involved in establishing Iranian influence in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003 and advising local militias on a campaign of terrorism against American soldiers. He was the subject of a profile in September 2013 by The New Yorker
that described him as “the Iranian operative... directing [President Bashar] Assad’s war in Syria.” He epitomizes the Iranian octopus’s nefarious role in linking Hezbollah to Tehran via Syria. When Islamic State began to commit massive atrocities in 2014 it apparently rattled Suleimani, who watched as Iraq’s army disintegrated.
Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to Iraq in 2007 to 2009 and ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, told BBC Persian that Suleimani was pulling the strings of Iranian diplomats and agents in both countries.
His role is well known among Western policy-makers.
Then-Canadian foreign minister John Baird called him an “agent of terror” at an international conference in Manama, Bahrain, in 2014.
With the prominent role Suleimani and his Iranian agents are playing in directing the offensive in Iraq, the question being asked is, who is actually in charge of this war against Islamic State? A US official told Newsweek
that Washington was eschewing cooperation with Baghdad in this offensive because of the Iranians’ presence.
“As a matter of policy, the United States does not coordinate... anything with Iran,” the official said. “The Iraqis have some homework to do on this before we are able to assist them in the area they’ve asked for.”
reporter concluded that “nobody knows who is in charge of the Tikrit operation.”
Evidence points to Tehran running this offensive with its Iraqi Shi’ite militias. US military equipment provided to Iraq has ended up in the hands of these Shi’ite units, with photos showing the yellow flag of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, a Shi’ite militia that has fought in Syria also, atop US made equipment.
The assault on Tikrit raises fears that Shi’ite militias will engage in ethnic cleansing of Sunnis. American expert Kenneth Pollack has warned reporters that the militias may engage in atrocities.
“In these circumstances, offensive operations into the Sunni heartland – Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces – could be disastrous. The Sunni populace is terrified by reports of Shia troops and militiamen conducting brutal ethnic cleansing operations.... The Sunnis may well see Iraqi government forces (and even the Kurds) not as liberators, but as a conquering Shia army,” he said.
Between November and January, Shi’ite militias involved in operations in villages in Diyala province were reported to have carried out massacres. One Sunni member of a local council said he had heard of 72 men who were murdered after a village was captured. In another case at the Musab bin Omar Mosque in the village of Bani Weis, Shi’ite militiamen shot dead 34 people.
The problem with Iraq is that information is sketchy and reports are clouded by the animus of the reporters. Iran’s clear role in the offensive will only cement the support for Islamic State felt by Sunnis who have no one else to turn to.
America’s short-term success in the “surge” in Iraq in 2007 was due to the allegiance of Sunni “Awakening Councils.” These ceased to exist after 2008 when Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to work with them, and some of their fighters joined Islamic State. Regional leaders must see the Shi’ite militia-led offensive for what it is – a dangerous sectarian war that may be aimed at defeating Islamic State but may leave even greater division in its wake and result in an Iranian-occupied Iraq.