After almost three months of claims of Iran’s military assistance to Iraqi forces against the insurgent offensive led by the Islamic State, Reuters has published the first direct evidence of Tehran’s involvement.
Reuters’ Isabel Coles reported on Sunday’s lifting of the siege of Amerli, surrounded by Islamic State fighters since their June advance through northern Iraq, by Kurdish and Iraqi forces and Shia militias. And she noted foreign military personnel, both in the march into Amerli and the capture of nearby Suleiman Beg from the jihadists:
An Iranian adviser to Iraqi police was spotted on the road near Amerli and Kurdish officers spoke of Iranians advising Iraqi fighters on targeting the Islamists….
The influence of Iran was evident in Suleiman Beg. With [the Shia militia] Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is funded by Iran and recognizes Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as its spiritual guide, were two men who spoke Farsi and dressed in beige uniforms different from their colleagues’ green camouflage.
Asked if he was Iranian, one of the Farsi speakers said: “We are liberating Suleiman Beg.”
Asked if the Iraqis’ could have made their recent gains without Iranian support, he answered: “No.”
By a convoy of armored police vehicles, a man speaking Farsi described himself as coming from Iran and said he was there to help with training police.
A peshmerga commander in Suleiman Beg acknowledged the part played by Iranians in the assault on Islamic State positions. “The Iranians had a role in this. They supplied weapons and helped with the military planning,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“They trained the Shi’ite forces. There are Iranians here in another base: three or four of them. They are guiding the peshmerga in firing heavy artillery. They don’t speak Kurdish – they have a translator.”
In June, soon after the Islamic State moved into Iraqi cities such as Mosul and Tikrit and advanced towards Baghdad, reports circulated of General Qassem Suleimani — the commander of the elite Qods Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps — advising Iraqi political and military leaders. There were also claims of Soleimani inspecting up to 2,000 Iranian troops on the frontline defenses north of Baghdad.
Last month, Kurdish sources said up to 1,500 Iranian troops had briefly joined them in an attempt to capture Jalawla in Diyala Province in eastern Iraq and Kurdish activists posted photos of Iranian tanks moving towards the town. Iranian officials initially denied any movement of their forces across the border, but the Interior Minister later admitted that Iranian forces had provided “advice”.
Coles’ report goes farther by indicating that the assistance is on far more than a temporary basis:
A senior member of the Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Reuters the Iraqi military, Kurds and Iranian advisers had joint operation centers.
Speaking in Khanaqin in Diyala Province, PUK member Mala Bakhtiar said the Iranians did not participate in actual fighting but provided expertise.
“There is logistical help and cooperation,” Bakhtiar said. “If there is a need, we meet with them and discuss the issues.”
The Iranian involvement in the Amerli operation also establishes a curious and uneasy connection with the US in operations in Iraq. As Tehran’s advisors assisted on the ground, Washington helped the Iraqi and Kurdish forces with aerial attacks on Islamic State positions.
That de facto alliance clashes with the official Iranian position, which has rejected cooperation with the US and has accused the Americans of helping foster the threat of the Islamic State.
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