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BAGHDAD – A powerful Iranian general has emerged as the chief tactician in Iraq's fight against Sunni militants, working on the front lines alongside 120 advisers from his country's Revolutionary Guard to direct Shiite militiamen and government forces in the smallest details of battle, militia commanders and government officials say.
The startlingly hands-on role of Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani points to the extent of the Shiite-led Iraqi government's reliance on its ally Tehran. It also strikes a strong contrast with the more methodical, cautious approach of the United States, Iran's rival for influence in Iraq. Shiite fighters have come to idolize the Iranians who have moved into the heat of battle alongside them — with two Iranian advisers killed in fighting — while government officials grumble the United States has failed to come to their aid.
The Iranian role, however, risks further sharpening the sectarian rifts in the conflict. At a time when the U.S. and others are pressing Iraq's government to reach out to Sunnis to reduce support for the insurgency, the effective Iranian command of Iraq's defense is likely to further alienate Sunnis, who have long accused Shiite-led Iran of trying to dominate Iraq through its allies here.
Soleimani, commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, is a frequent visitor to multiple battlezones in Iraq, most particularly in Samarra, a city north of Baghdad under siege by Sunni extremists in their march toward the capital. The city is vital to Baghdad's Shiite-led government because it is the location of a revered Shiite shrine that Sunni insurgents have destroyed in the past and are targeting again now.
In his frequent stays in Samarra, Soleimani bases himself in the al-Askari shrine, even sleeping in its basement as he coordinates the city's defense, said two Shiite militia commanders who saw him there. On one recent visit, he joined militiamen in group prayers in the shrine, said one of the commanders, who like the other spoke on condition of anonymity because the government has sought to keep the Iranian role behind the scenes.
The Revolutionary Guard military advisers with Soleimani have provided guidance for Shiite militiamen in shelling positions of the Sunni insurgents and have directed them in a strategy of carving out a large enough margin of territory around the city that Sunni mortars can't reach the shrine, the commanders said. "Without them (the Iranians) and the militias, we would have lost Samarra," one militia commander said.
A handful of advisers from Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah guerrilla group are also offering front-line guidance to Iraqi militias fighting north of Baghdad,
"We sorely need these advisers," said Wahab al-Taei, a senior commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of several Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. "They have the expertise we lack in urban guerrilla warfare."
The United States has a team of around 210 troops in Iraq. Their main mission has been to assess the readiness of the Iraqi military to fight the Sunni insurgency, led by a radical al-Qaida breakaway group called the Islamic State, which over the past month has overrun most Sunni-majority parts of the country. The Pentagon this week confirmed it had received the team's assessment, but that it will take some time to review it and come up with recommendations on how the U.S. should help Iraq in the fight.
Iraqi requests for U.S. airstrikes against the Sunni militants have so far gone unanswered, though President Barack Obama has not ruled them out. Pentagon officials have said there are questions whether strikes would be effective if the Iraqi military is not capable of recapturing lost ground and that strikes could further turn Sunnis against the government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki "feels he has been let down by the Americans and that's why he sought Iranian help," said Watheq al-Hashemi, an Iraqi analyst known to be close to the prime minister.
A senior Iraqi military official said of the Americans, "We have not seen any real help from them so far," saying the U.S. team had not ventured out to the battlefields. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the team's activities.
The American emphasis has been on building an inclusive government that can win the support of the minority Sunni community, widely alienated by al-Maliki. Sunni support is seen as vital to regaining the Sunni-dominated regions captured by the insurgency after the military collapsed. In contrast, the Shiite militias being organized by Iran have been able to stem the insurgents advance — but if they play a prominent role in trying to retake Sunni areas, it will likely only fuel sectarian hatreds and bloodshed.
Iraq's state-run media has made no mention of Iranian involvement, apparently to avoid fueling the sectarian rift. But evidence of its presence surfaced July 6 when Iran's state news agency said an Iranian was killed while defending Shiite holy sites in Samarra. A second Iranian military adviser was killed several days later by a roadside bomb in the Samarra area.
Soleimani's Quds Force, the external-operations arm of the Revolutionary Guard, has been involved for years in training and financing Iraqi Shiite militias. It has also long worked with Hezbollah in Lebanon and has been helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in the fight against mainly Sunni rebels in that country's civil war.
"Soleimani wants to protect Baghdad and Samarra just as he kept Damascus safe for Assad," said one Iraqi government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Iranians' role. "He is constantly shuttling between Iraq and Iran and when he is here he goes everywhere."
Besides the adviser team, Iranian drones are flying near daily reconnaissance flights and Iranian weapons have been pouring into Iraq in large quantities, mostly to Shiite militias.
Iran also allowed Iraqi pilots to bring back to Iraq five Soviet-era Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers that Saddam Hussein ordered flown to Iran rather than risk their destruction before the 1991 Gulf War. The aircraft join about a half dozen Sukhoi-25s that al-Maliki bought secondhand from Russia to give an edge to his fledgling air force of two Cessna planes firing U.S.-made Hellfire missiles.
The Shiite militia commanders said Soleimani was also directing militias, volunteers and government forces at other front-line zones around Baghdad. His willingness — and that of his advisers — to go right into the battle has created a near cult of personality for Soleimani among some militiamen.
"They are so much braver than Iraqi army commanders," a senior militia commander deployed in Samarra said of the Iranians. "Soleimani is the world's best military commander."