However, photos soon emerged on independent Iraqi news websites revealing a more discreet presence — the Iranian general Ghasem Soleimani, whose name has become synonymous with the handful of victories attributed to Iraqi ground forces. Local commanders said Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militia group was also involved.
The U.S. has awkwardly found itself on the same side as Iran and Hezbollah in the war against the Islamic State group, which rampaged across much of northern and western Iraq in June. While U.S. military advisers have been coordinating coalition airstrikes from within heavily fortified bases, Soleimani and his commanders are on the front lines and would assume a key role in the retaking of major cities.
That could prove a major impediment to addressing the grievances of Iraq’s Sunni minority. Iran and Hezbollah are closely linked with Iraqi Shiite militias, which have also played a key role in driving IS out of the so-called Baghdad Belt of Sunni villages ringing the capital. The sectarian militias have long been implicated in brutality against Sunnis, and their advance could undermine efforts to knit the troubled country together.
Militia commanders told The Associated Press that dozens of advisers from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were on the front lines in Jurf al-Sakher. They said the advisers provided weapons training to some 7,000 Iraqi troops and militia fighters and coordinated with military commanders ahead of the operation.
One commander, who agreed to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Zeinab, said Soleimani began planning the Jurf al-Sakher operation three months ago. The cleared town, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital, lies on a road often used by Shite pilgrims.
Iraqi military officials declined to discuss Soleimani’s presence in Jurf al-Sakher, or in previous victories where he is known to have played a commanding role. Those successes include halting the IS advance in the town of Amirli in August and the city of Samarra in June.
But senior figures with the Revolutionary Guard have publicly acknowledged Soleimani’s role in Iraq’s war with ISIS.
As for Hezbollah, it has openly joined Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces against mainly Sunni rebels — a decision that has fueled sectarian tensions in Lebanon. But Hezbollah has declined to comment on reports of its involvement in Iraq.
In July, officials in Lebanon said a Hezbollah commander was killed while on a “jihadi mission” in Iraq. Ibrahim Mohammed al-Haj was buried in Lebanon and his funeral attended by top Hezbollah officials. It was the first known Hezbollah death in Iraq since the lightning IS advance in June.
A Lebanese official close to the group said Hezbollah is known to have “a limited number of advisers” in Iraq who are not directly involved in fighting, and that al-Haj was one of them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
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