Iranian outmaneuvers U.S. in Iraq

Rusting tanks from the Iraq-Iran war where Iraqi Brig. Gen. Suleimani first saw action
Rusting tanks from the Iraq-Iran war where Iraqi Brig. Gen. Suleimani first saw action Reza Moattarian / MCT

BAGHDAD — One of the most powerful men in Iraq isn't an Iraqi government official, a militia leader, a senior cleric or a top U.S. military commander or diplomat,

He's an Iranian general, and at times he's more influential than all of them.

Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani commands the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, an elite paramilitary and espionage organization whose mission is to expand Iran's influence in the Middle East.

As Tehran's point man on Iraq, he funnels military and financial support to various Iraqi factions, frustrating U.S. attempts to build a pro-Western democracy on the rubble of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

According to Iraqi and American officials, Suleimani has ensured the elections of pro-Iranian politicians, met frequently with senior Iraqi leaders and backed Shiite elements in the Iraqi security forces that are accused of torturing and killing minority Sunni Muslims.

"Whether we like him (Suleimani) or not, whether Americans like him or not, whether Iraqis like him or not, he is the focal point of Iranian policy in Iraq," said a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely. "The Quds Force have played it all, political, military, intelligence, economic. They are Iranian foreign policy in Iraq."

McClatchy reported on March 30 that Suleimani intervened to halt the fighting between mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the southern city of Basra. Iraqi officials now confirm that in addition to that meeting, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani personally met Suleimani at a border crossing to make a direct appeal for help.

Iraqi and U.S. officials told McClatchy that Suleimani also has:

  • Slipped into Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government, in April 2006 to try to orchestrate the selection of a new Iraqi prime minister. Iraqi officials said that audacious visit was Suleimani's only foray into the Green Zone; American officials said he may have been there more than once.
  • Built powerful networks that gather intelligence on American and Iraqi military operations. Suleimani's network includes every senior staffer in Iran's embassy in Baghdad, beginning with the ambassador, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
  • Trained and directed Shiite Muslim militias and given them cash and arms, including mortars and rockets fired at the U.S. Embassy and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, the sophisticated roadside bombs that have caused hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi casualties.
  • "I'm extremely concerned about what I believe to be an increasingly lethal and malign influence by (Iran's) government and the Quds Force, in particular in Iraq and throughout the Middle East," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.

    Not just a terrorist group

    Suleimani's role in Iraq illustrates how President Bush's decision to topple Saddam has enabled Shiite, Persian Iran to extend its influence in Iraq, frustrating U.S, aims there, alarming America's Sunni Arab allies in the Persian Gulf and prompting new Israeli fears about Iran's ambitions.

    Iraq has become a battleground between Bush's vision of a secular, multiethnic, Western-oriented democracy and the aims of Suleimani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to whom he reports.

    "To understand it (the Quds Force) as just a terrorist group, as the U.S. does, is not helpful," said Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based Middle East analyst. "It is a very important, almost second tier of Iranian international diplomacy."

    The Iranians' longstanding goals include pushing United States forces out of Iraq, perhaps encouraging a broader American retreat from the Middle East and securing a Shiite-dominated Iraqi regime that's friendly to Tehran and can't threaten a repeat of Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran, which started a devastating eight-year war.

    U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because intelligence information is classified, said that Suleimani's Quds Force has provided arms to Taliban insurgents fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and has supported Islamist militant groups such as Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are Sunni, and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is Shiite.

    In Iraq, Iran's chief ally has been the Badr Organization, formerly the paramilitary wing of what's now the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the country's largest Shiite political party. During the Iran-Iraq war, Badr operated as a wing of the Iranian military; after the toppling of Saddam, Badr members infiltrated the security forces and were believed to be responsible for torturing and killing jailed Sunnis.

    U.S. military officials also charge that Suleimani has brought in Hezbollah fighters to train Iraqi Shiite cells, which the Americans call "special groups," that specialize in attacking American forces.

    The U.S. officials said that Suleimani's organization is the main source of the EFPs planted by the "special groups" and other Shiite militias. The weapons, which can shoot plugs of molten copper through thick armor, not only have caused casualties, but also have forced the Bush administration to spend billions developing high-tech defenses and buy thousands of new blast-proof vehicles.

    Iran's embassy in Baghdad didn't respond to a formal request for information, and its mission in New York had no comment. Iran has repeatedly denied U.S. charges that it's arming Shiite militants in Iraq.

    One of Suleimani's first major victories against the United States in Iraq, however, was the product of political shrewdness, not military force. It came in January 2005, when Iraqis voted for the first time since Saddam's ouster nearly two years earlier.

    The Bush administration pulled out all the stops to keep secular, pro-Western interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in office, aiding him with broadcast airtime, slick campaign ads and veteran advisers.

    Suleimani countered with a covert PR campaign on behalf of a bloc of conservative pro-Iran Shiites that he helped assemble, and he sent printing presses, consultants and broadcasting equipment, said a senior Iraqi official who's known Suleimani for years. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive relationship between Iraq and Iran.

    When the ballots were counted, Bush pointed to the purple-dyed fingers of Iraqi voters as a triumph for democracy — but Allawi and his bloc were out and Iran's allies were in.

    A year later, in April 2006, Iran became deeply concerned about a deadlock in negotiations over the selection of a new Iraqi prime minister after a second round of parliamentary elections.

    This time, Suleimani slipped into the Green Zone to negotiate with Shiite politicians and to ensure that Iraq's final choice was acceptable to Tehran.

    In the end, the Iraqis compromised on Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

    Stunned by the security breach, American officials demanded an explanation from their Iraqi allies.

    U.S. officials "were upset, but this solved the problem at the time," Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi told McClatchy in an interview this month at his Baghdad office. "I think they were pleased on one side, they were unpleased from the other side. Pleased that there was a solution to the standstill situation that we had at that time, but of course, I think, unpleased because he (Suleimani) was in the Green Zone."

    U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the ambassador to Iraq at the time, told McClatchy last week that "certainly there were allegations that he came" to the Green Zone in April 2006. Khalilzad said he couldn't recall whether the U.S. Embassy verified the reports.

    U.S. officials said that wasn't the last time Suleimani visited Iraq. "It appears that Suleimani could accumulate a number of travel miles from the number of times he's crossed the border" since April 2006, said a U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

    The U.S. Treasury Department subsequently placed Suleimani on a terrorism watch list of individuals with whom Americans are barred from doing business. And in October 2007, Treasury named the Quds Force as a supporter of the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas and "other terrorist organizations." U.N. Resolution 1747 of March 2007 put Suleimani on a watch list of Iranian officials associated with the country's nuclear program.

    Lighting fires and putting them out

    The United States has struggled, without much success, to cripple Suleimani's operations in Iraq. The most publicized episodes occurred when U.S. forces detained alleged Quds Force operatives in Baghdad in December 2006 and in Irbil in 2007.

    If U.S. officials thought that would discourage attacks on American forces in Iraq, they were mistaken: Instead, the following months saw a huge spike in EFP attacks.

    Nor did Iran blink in talks about its nuclear activities. Instead, the Revolutionary Guards seized 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf, and four Iranian-Americans were detained in Iran.

    As tensions mounted over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration dispatched an additional aircraft carrier battle group and extra missile defense batteries to the Persian Gulf.

    After a series of talks — which the White House initially resisted — Iran freed its British and Iranian-American detainees, and the U.S. military released nine of the suspected Quds Force operators in November.

    Tensions appear to be rising again, however. EFP attacks in March reached July's record level, the U.S. military said, and Mullen last week accused Suleimani of precipitating the battles in Basra by backing the Shiite militias and criminal groups that sought control of the southern city and its vital oil-loading facilities.

    "The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago," Mullen said. "They seem to have gone the other way."

    Suleimani, however, has proved to be equally adept at making peace to achieve his goals. Last month, he played a pivotal role in ending the fighting for control of Basra between Iraqi troops and the followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

    Iraqi security forces moved against Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, as well as criminal gangs. The unrest threatened to snowball into a full-blown Mahdi Army uprising that would have paralyzed not only most of Iraq's oil-producing south, but also Baghdad, where more than 2 million of the group's supporters live in the vast Sadr City slum.

    Representatives of the two Iranian-backed parties that anchor Iraq's ruling Shiite bloc — the Dawa Party of Prime Minister al Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — went to Iran for talks with high-level Iranian officials. They met with Suleimani in Tehran, according to two insiders' accounts, and then with Sadr himself in the holy city of Qom.

    "A delegation went to speak to the officials in Iran in the name of the alliance, to ask them to encourage these groups to stay within the boundaries of the law," said Ammar al Hakim, the son and senior aide of the leader of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. "They met with a number of officials, and Mr. Suleimani was one of them."

    Iran has been wary of Sadr's independence and unpredictability, but he's widely believed to be a recipient of some Iranian support.

    One member of the delegation that met with Suleimani, Ali al Adeeb, a top Dawa Party leader, said that the Iranian officials swore that they weren't arming Sadr's forces.

    "We reminded them that the security of Iraq would affect the security of Iran," Adeeb said in an interview at his Baghdad headquarters. "And that any support they give to the Sadrist movement would send a message to the United States to stay in Iraq because it's still too unstable."

    During that same weekend, March 28-29, a higher-level meeting took place at the Iran-Iraq border crossing at Mariwan. Iraqi President Talabani, a pro-American Kurd, delivered to Suleimani what one Iraqi politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, called a plea: "Stop the fighting."

    Another Iraqi official said that Talabani asked Suleimani to "stop Sadr." Suleimani "immediately sent messages" and "the fighting stopped the next day," said the Iraqi official, who also requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the meeting.

    Two other senior Iraqi officials confirmed the meeting; Talabani couldn't be reached for comment.

    "As long as the dialogue is about Iraq, meetings will be held on the soil of Iraq as well as the other places," said Hadi al Ameri, an Iraqi legislator who commands the Badr Organization. "Maybe the president going to the border can be questioned as far as protocol, but protocol is not our main concern. Our main concern is putting out the fires."

    Despite Suleimani's apparent ability to put out fires, a half dozen senior Iraqi leaders interviewed in Baghdad cautioned that focusing on one individual overlooks the larger problem of competing U.S. and Iranian agendas that are tearing the country apart.

    In separate interviews, Hakim and Iraqi Vice President Abdul Mahdi likened the Iraqi government's position to being "caught between the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil."

    "This man is like other men," Hakim said of Suleimani . "He may have significant intelligence capabilities, he may have his good points and his bad points. But it's not logical that we exaggerate these points to the extent of giving a surreal picture.

    "We have all enjoyed watching the American films in which the 'hero' is capable of doing the impossible, and anyone can die in the film except him, but no sooner does the film end than we return to the reality that only God is omnipotent," Hakim said.


    Designation of Iranian Entities and Individuals for Proliferation Activities and Support for Terrorism:

    (Leila Fadel contributed. Allam reported from Baghdad; Landay and Strobel reported from Washington.)

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