Middle East

Iran general in Iraq 'whenever we need': militia chief

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani uses a walkie-talkie at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. Picture taken March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT POLITICS)

Al-Alam, Iraq: Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top officer responsible for foreign operations, provides assistance in Iraq "whenever we need him," Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the Badr militia, said Sunday.

"He was giving very good advice. The battle ended now, and he returned to his operations headquarters," Ameri told journalists close to the Al-Alam area north of Baghdad.

He was apparently referring to the battle to retake the nearby city of Tikrit from the ISIS jihadi group, which began earlier this month and has since become a siege.

"Qassem Soleimani is here whenever we need him," said Ameri, whose Badr militia is a powerful Iranian-backed force in the fight against ISIS.

Ameri's remarks are a sign of the important role Soleimani plays in military operations against ISIS in Iraq and the influence Tehran wields here, both much to Washington's chagrin.

Soleimani has advised Iraqi forces in multiple operations against ISIS, which led a major offensive last June that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad.

In doing so, he and other Iranian advisers provide the kind of forward support during operations that U.S. President Barack Obama has yet to authorize American forces to undertake.

Soleimani has played an increasingly public and open role in the fight against ISIS, a major change for a man who was once known as the elusive operative leading Iranian efforts against the U.S. in Iraq.

Now, his face is widely known, pictures of him are shared on social media, and he has even been the topic of music videos.

Ameri also criticised "weaklings" in the Iraqi army who want U.S.-led air strikes to support the massive operation to retake Tikrit from jihadis.

The remarks point to a possible divide between the Iraqi army and allied paramilitaries known as "Popular Mobilization" units, which are dominated by Shiite militia forces, over the now-stalled Tikrit drive.

"Some of the weaklings in the army... say we need the Americans, while we say we do not need the Americans," Ameri told journalists at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, when asked about U.S.-led air support for Tikrit.

Army Staff Lieutenant General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a top commander in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, told AFP that he had requested such strikes against ISIS and that they were needed.

But the Pentagon said that the Iraqi government has not made any request for air support for the Tikrit operation, which began on March 2.

Forces from the army, the police and a number of different militias are taking part in the operation, bringing different tactics, skill levels and willingness to take casualties to the fight.

It is unclear who if anyone has overall command of the operation, and disputes between the forces involved would hamper an effort that has already become bogged down by the huge number of bombs planted by ISIS in the city's streets and houses.

While pro-government forces were able to take control of towns near Tikrit and then surround it, fighting to clear the city itself proved much more difficult, and the operation has been halted and ISIS fighters besieged.

 

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