BAGHDAD (AP) — When Islamic State militants retreated from the embattled town of Jurf al-Sakher last week, the Iraqi military was quick to flaunt a rare victory against the extremist group, with state television showing tanks and Humvees parading through the town and soldiers touring government buildings that had been occupied by the militants since August.
However, photos soon emerged on independent Iraqi news websites revealing a more discreet presence – the powerful Iranian general Ghasem Soleimani – whose name has become synonymous with the handful of victories attributed to Iraqi ground forces. Local commanders said Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hezbollah group was also on the front lines.
Shiite militias have played a key role in driving the Islamic State group out of the so-called Baghdad Belt of Sunni villages ringing the capital. But the sectarian militias have long been implicated in brutality against the country’s Sunnis, and while they have benefited from U.S.-led airstrikes, their advance could undermine efforts to knit the troubled country together.
Militia commanders told The Associated Press that dozens of advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanese Hezbollah were on the front lines in Jurf al-Sakher, providing weapons training to some 7,000 troops and militia fighters, and coordinating with military commanders ahead of the operation.
One commander, who agreed only to be identified by his nickname, Abu Zeinab, said Soleimani began planning the Jurf al-Sakher operation three months ago. The cleared town, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital, lies on a road often used by Shite pilgrims, who will be heading in droves to the holy city of Karbala this week to commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, in a 7th century battle that marked the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite divide.
Iraqi military officials declined to discuss Soleimani’s presence in Jurf al-Sakher, or in previous victories where he is known to have played a commanding role, including in the besieged town of Amirli in August and in the Shiite holy city of Samarra in June.
“It is true that Iraq needs any kind of help in the current situation, but this help should be public and part of the international efforts,” Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq told the AP. “This undeclared Iranian help harms national reconciliation and the sovereignty of Iraq.”
In June, Revolutionary Guard advisers under Soleimani provided guidance for Shiite militiamen in shelling Sunni insurgent positions around Samarra, a Sunni-majority city north of Baghdad that is home to a revered Shiite shrine, local commanders said. Soleimani was also seen as playing a key role in relieving the Islamic State siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amirli. And a top Revolutionary Guard general said in September that Soleimani had even helped Kurdish fighters defend their regional capital Irbil.
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