WASHINGTON — The Iranian general who helped broker an end to nearly a week of fighting between Iraqi government forces and Shiite Muslim militiamen in southern Iraq is an unlikely peacemaker.
Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who helped U.S.-backed Iraqi leaders negotiate a deal with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to stop the fighting in Iraq's largely Shiite south, is named on U.S. Treasury Department and U.N. Security Council watch lists for alleged involvement in terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear and missile technology.
His role as peacemaker, which McClatchy first reported Sunday, underscores Iran's entrenched political power and its alliances in Iraq, according to analysts.
"The Iranians are into a lot of things, and have a lot of influence," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who's now at the National Defense University in Washington.
Suleimani, about whom little is known publicly, commands the elite Quds (Jerusalem) force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. U.S. officials allege that the force is responsible for sending sophisticated roadside bombs, known as explosively formed projectiles, and other weaponry that Iran's Shiite allies in Iraq sometimes have used to kill U.S. troops.
Suleimani's name appears on a U.S. Treasury Department list of individuals and organizations with whom Americans are barred from doing business.
He's also mentioned in a March 2007 U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at halting Iran's uranium enrichment program. His name appears in an annex of Iranian individuals whose financial assets U.N. members are required to freeze.
Iraqi lawmakers said that Suleimani had participated in weekend meetings in the Iranian holy city of Qom that resulted in Sadr ordering his followers to draw back after nearly a week of clashes with government troops.
While Iran flexed its political and diplomatic muscles, the United States at times appeared to be a bystander in the crisis. The United States has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq, but little presence or influence in the south and the port city of Basra.
"Iran showed that they could mediate this cease-fire while the U.S. has shown very little influence," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the private International Crisis Group. "The United States is eager to accuse Iran of playing a damaging role in Iraq, but the bottom line is that Iran and the United States have a lot of things in common."
State Department officials in Baghdad and Washington said they had no independent information about the meetings in Iran.
"We have no comment on any specific part Iran might have played in this instance, but our position in general on Iran's unhelpful role in supporting violent groups in Iraq has been very clear," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said in an e-mail.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment, referring questions to the State Department and the U.S. military.
Suleimani is the Iranian official who deals with Iraqi affairs. Iraqi lawmakers said that he was the man they needed to go to when it came to dealing with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and Iranian funding of Shiite militias.
"Qassem al Suleimani is the person in charge of the Iraqi issue," said an Iraqi official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "He's in charge of supporting the militias and training them. . . . The Iranians have a huge influence on the Mahdi Army, they're harboring Muqtada . . . they are like a tool in their hands."
While the State Department cautiously welcomed Sadr's call to his followers Sunday to avoid armed clashes, it was far from clear that the outcome of the crisis furthered U.S. goals in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched an offensive a week ago to curb the power of Shiite militias and gangs in Basra, many of whom are allied with Shiite parties that are his political opponents.
But the offensive, which President Bush hailed Friday as "a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," appeared to fall far short of its goals.
"There's no way the government can muster the strength now to take on the militias," said Wayne White, a former top Iraq analyst in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "We're going to have to learn to live with them."
There were reports that some forces loyal to Maliki refused to fight Sadr's Mahdi Army or, in a few cases, switched sides.
However, a State Department official said that Iraqi government forces "performed OK. . . . They get a `gentleman's C' for their performance." He requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
Several analysts expressed surprise that Iran would permit a semi-public role for the Quds force, given its past denials of meddling in Iraq.
It was "rather cheeky on the part of the Iranians," White said. "They essentially made clear that the Quds force has a role in Iraq."
(Fadel reported from Baghdad.)
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747: http://www.cfr.org/publication/12987
U.S. Treasury Department's Specially Designated Nationals List: http://www.ustreas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/sdn
McClatchy Newspapers 2008