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Iranian general pulls strings in Iraq

By Don Shilling, Jim Flick, Jocelyn Noveck, John Bassetti

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq — 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 Newspapers 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:

USlipped 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.

UBuilt 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.

UTrained 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, part of 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.

The Iranians’ long-standing 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’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.