Baghdad (Iraq), 19th June, 2014 — Just as ISIS is increasing its grip on Iraq, so too is Iran. Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani is now in Baghdad. Gen Soleimani is the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
It has been reported that up to 100 leading members of the Quds Force have already arrived in Iraq to give “military advice” to the Iraqi government.
Gen Soleimani has had prior experience of fighting ISIS when he tackled the Sunni jihadists in Syria.
It has also been reported that Soleimani helped President Bashar al-Assad stop the onslaught and successes of the Sunni forces in Syria and that he also contributed to recovering previously captured cities and towns.
More specifically, there is evidence which shows that Gen Soleimani helped Bashar Assad create the National Defence Force, which is a militia of mainly Shia (i.e., Alawite) volunteers.
Clearly, this will be the strategy which Soleimani will apply in the case of Iraq.
The Sunni-Shia war, therefore, is already wider than Iraq. It also encompasses Syria; just as it encompasses Yemen, Bahrain and other countries. And where there isn’t outright civil war, there is the simple persecution and killing of Shia by Sunni Muslims; as in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.
The Revolutionary Guards of Iran have been involved in Iraq for longer than the recent events suggest. In 2007, Americans arrested five Iranians in Iraq. They were accused, by the Americans, of being Revolutionary Guards who were in the process of “training Shia militias”. That was during the previous (2006-2008) Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq.
US and Iran
The US has formerly admitted that Soleimani is in charge of the operations against ISIS. For example, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said:
“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.”It shouldn’t come as a surprise to note that Shia Iran has cooperated with the US before. And it did so for more or less the same reason: to stem the advances of Sunnis jihadists and even to help control Sunni states. In this case, that country was Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2007, Iran offered military information to the US in order to defeat the Sunni Taliban.
Despite that Iran-US cooperation, there have been calls for the Shia Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, to resign – even from US officials. However, I don’t think that will work; although it may work in the extreme short-term. The problem is that many Sunnis aren’t simply against Maliki simply because he has acted prejudicially against the Sunnis. They are against him because he’s a Shia Prime Minister. And even, in many cases, simply because he’s a Shia.
The fact that all this has a specifically religious – not simply an Iraqi – dimension is shown by the fact that General Soleimani is only seeking the recruitment of Shia Muslims in Iraq; even though those Shia troops and militias may well end up fighting alongside the now beleaguered Iraq army (which includes Sunnis).
None of what’s happening in Iraq at the moment is entirely new; though ISIS’s actions have been more extreme - and more successful! - than what has happened in the immediate past.
For example, just as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been in Iraq since 2007 (if not before), if only on and off; so foreign jihadists have been in Iraq since 2001. (To take just one example. In late 2001, around 500 foreigners, including 100 Egyptians, entered Iraq through Iran.) And even the Salafists (which is basically what ISIS is made up of) have been active in Iraq since the 1950s.