The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force Commander General Qasim Suleimani is a rather infamous figure in Iraq and the Middle East. The general has been blamed for organizing attacks upon American forces when they were in Iraq, helping to put together new governments in Baghdad, and now he’s running Iraqi fighters into Syria. The man is a jack of all trades involved in espionage, covert operations, and power politics. He’s rarely talked about in public however, which was why Dexter Filkins’ recent article for the New Yorker profiling the general was quite revealing. Here now is an interview with Filkins about General Suleimani’s role in Iraq.
1. General Qasim Suleimani was an early supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, which led him to join the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1979. The next year he was fighting in the Iran-Iraq War where he eventually rose to be a division commander. He witnessed hundreds of his friends and comrades die in that conflict. Do you think that gave him a life long interest in Iraq, and a desire to not see that country become a threat again?
I think that’s right. Suleimani, but Iran more broadly, were deeply traumatized by the Iran-Iraq war, and they vowed never to allow anything like that to repeat itself.
2. Suleimani seemed to follow a two-track policy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Overall, what did he want to do to the American occupation, and what were his goals with the new Iraqi government?
I think Suliemani—after concluding the Americans were not going to invade Iran—decide to bleed the Americans as much as he could. At the same time, he worked to ensure that the Shiites succeeded in Iraq. I think this made for a sort of yin-yang policy that was sometimes at war with itself. But I think it’s safe to say that Suleimani helped kill a lot of Americans.
3. One example of his political strategy was his involvement in the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). After the Coalition Provisional Authority took over responsibility for Iraq in 2003 it created the IGC. You discovered that it was actually put together through negotiations between the State Department’s Ryan Cocker and Suleimani. How did the two work out the Council members, and what was each hoping to achieve?
It’s pretty amazing; the IGC was essentially the product of a joint American-Iranian negotiation. Ryan Crocker was at the center of it; he told me never gave the Suliemani veto power; for instance, the Iranians didn’t want Ayad Alawi. But he sometimes agreed to Iranian requests if their objections involved someone the Americans regarded as non-essential.
4. On the military front, the Qods Force began supporting a number of Shiite militias against the Americans. Many in the U.S. believed that Moqtada al-Sadr was Iran’s main proxy, but Suleimani actually didn’t like working with him. Can you explain his dislike for Sadr and what alternatives that led the Qods Force Commander to search out to confront the Americans?
This one’s pretty easy, I think. Muqtada is a very independent leader, and I think this frustrated Suleimani. The result were what the Americans called “Special Groups,” i.e., militias that were under more direct Iranian control.
5. One tactic that Suleimani unsuccessfully employed to undermine the U.S. occupation was to encourage the flow of Islamist militants into Iraq via Syria. This seemed to blowback upon the general in two ways. First, what did the Islamists end up doing in Iraq, and what are they doing in Syria now?
Well, I think the real crazies started blowing up Shiite mosques and the like—the very people the Iranians were supporting. They made a sectarian war in Iraq. They are now doing the same in Syria.
6. Washington knew about all of the general’s machinations in Iraq, and finally decided to retaliate starting in December 2006. What kind of operations did the U.S. forces launch against the Qods Force, and how did Suleimani retaliate?
U.S. Special Forces captured five Quds Force officers in Erbil. I think the evidence suggests pretty conclusively that Suleimani retaliated by ordering an Iraqi militia (a Special Group) to kidnap and kill five Americans in Karbala less than a week later.
7. That was quite an escalation form arresting Qods Force membersto them killing U.S. soldiers. Did the Americans consider raising the stakes after that, perhaps a cross border raid into Iran or anything like that?
Yes, they did. But they figured in the end that it would be too easy for the Iranians to escalate the war, which they didn’t need.
8. General Suleimani seemed to like the overt and covert battle with the U.S. in Iraq, and there was some indirect communication between the two via intermediaries and text messages. What were some of the more notorious comments the general made to the Americans?
Well, I think the most colorful one came in 2006, when Sulimani appears to have sent a note to the American command, following the war between Israel and Hezbollah: He said: “I hope you have been enjoying the peace and quiet in Baghdad. I’ve been busy in Beirut!” A sense of humor, you might say.
9. Many Iraqis believe that Suleimani is involved in all the major negotiations between the ruling parties in the country. That actually seemed to be true after the 2010 parliamentary elections. The winning lists were deadlocked for months in talks over whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would return for a second term. What role did the general play in breaking this stalemate?
Suleimani himself broke the stalemate between the Iraqis, by persuading Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition to join Maliki’s government. That clinched it.
|Suleimani helped convince Sadr to support Maliki after the 2010 elections assuring him of a 2nd term (AP)|
10. Now that the American military has withdrawn from Iraq many in the West believe that Iraq has fallen in with Tehran. That’s not quite true as shown in the relationship between Premier Maliki and Suleimani. What do the two think of each other?
I think they do not like each other, but at the same time I think Maliki feels compelled to do many things the Iranians tell him to do.
11. Today the general’s main concern is Syria. You wrote that he has a command post set up in Damascus where he orchestrates part of the war. He has drawn on his ties in Iraq to varying degrees of success to help with this. One major project is ferrying weapons and supplies from Iran to Syria through Iraq. Who did Suleimani contact in Iraq to help him, and who answered his call?
Good question. I am not sure. Essentially, the Maliki government allows the Iranian planes to fly over Iraqi airspace unimpeded. One crucial figure in all this is the Transportation Minister, Hadi Al-Ameri. For years, Ameri was the head of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia with very close ties to Iran—so close that Badr fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq war.
12. Just as important is that Iran is bringing in its allies to support the Assad regime, which includes Iraqis. What kind of command and control does Suleimani exercise over them, and what are they doing in the war?
The exact command relationship is not clear, but it is quite clear that Iran is instrumental in the recruiting, training and moving of the militias into Syria. So I think the Iranian role is substantial.
Filkins, Dexter, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, 9/30/13