Iranian Commanders on Front Line of Iraq's 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."

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