Iran’s secretive Quds force is becoming more active in Iraq along side Iraqi soldiers and militias battling the Islamic State terrorist group, as the Obama administration sends signals welcoming Tehran to the fight.
A source close to the U.S. special operations community said some elite Quds forces were on the ground last month when Iraqis recaptured the strategic Mosul Dam from Islamic State fighters. The Iraqis were aided overhead by U.S. strike aircraft providing close-air support.
The report comes as the Obama administration is talking more openly about relying on Iran, a Shiite-dominated nation, to take on the Islamic State group, which also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
“There is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday at the U.N. while drumming up support for destroying the Islamic State.
The Pentagon says it had no troops on the ground and thus does not know the affiliations of all the anti-Islamic State fighters during the battle for Mosul Dam, the most famous and successful to date after U.S. planes began striking the terrorists in early August.
But a senior defense official told The Washington Times that Quds force troops are active in Iraq advising Shiite militias and other Iraqi forces.
“We know that the Quds forces have been operating in Iraq,” the official said. “That we know for a fact. And we know that they have been doing some partnering and assisting with Iraqi forces. A lot of what the Quds forces are doing is more focused on the militias, the Shiite militias.”
The battle for Mosul Dam in northern Iraq would be the first known clash in which Americans fought on the same side with Iran, albeit not in an official or a coordinated manner.
The Iran-U.S. relationship has grown more convoluted with the rise of the Islamic State, which controls towns and territory in Syria and Iraq, and has proclaimed itself an Islamic caliphate.
During the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, the Quds force trained Iraqi Shiite extremists who attacked and killed U.S. troops.
Quds force troops are now in Syria fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad, who has directed the slaughter of thousands civilians and whom the U.S. wants ousted. Iran also backs Hamas and Hezbollah, two U.S.-designated terrorist groups.
But in Iraq, America and Iran now have a common enemy whose brutality and threat to the region trump the two countries’ long sour relationship.
It is an undeclared alliance. The State Department says it will not coordinate with Iran, and Tehran rejects the thought of a war partnership with the U.S.
The source close to the special operations community told The Times that the Quds force “was the principal force for taking over the dam” on and around Aug. 18.
Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told The Times: “We are aware Iran has sent personnel to Iraq who are training and advising some Iraqi security forces and illegal militia. We also know that Iran has provided some supplies, arms, ammunition, and aircraft for Iraq’s armed forces.
“We have been clear that ISIL represents a threat not only to the United States, but also — and most immediately — to the entire region. We believe all countries, regardless of their differences, should work toward the goal of degrading and ultimately defeating ISIL.”
The Quds force is the prime adviser to Shiite militia groups viewed as critical to protecting Baghdad and reinforcing the shaky Iraqi army.
While Iraqi Shiites are more than willing to combat the Islamic State, which brands them as heretics and designates them for murder, many Sunni Iraqis are not.
One of the new diplomatic tasks of retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who commanded troops in Iraq, is to reach out to Sunni tribal and military leaders to persuade them to join a coalition against the terrorists.
Quds force is the foreign operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s overriding military institution embedded in policymaking and society. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that then-Quds leader Qasem Soleimani visited Iraq to consult with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government.
Before U.S. airstrikes began last month, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, was asked by National Public Radio if the military would coordinate with Iranian advisers in Iraq.
“That’s to be determined,” he said. “We will look at Iran with a cold eye on where and when we may need to operate in the same space and toward what is potentially the same goal of countering” the Islamic State.
“I’m not predicting that it’s entirely impossible that we would at any point act collaboratively with Iran,” the top U.S. military official said. “But there’s a long way to go between here and there, in my judgment.”
Gen. Dempsey recently described the Mosul Dam battle in some detail before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. He said American advice came at a distance from a joint command center in the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq. Planners used video feeds from unmanned aircraft to provide intelligence to Kurdish fighters and Iraqi counterterrorism units.
He made no mention of any Quds forces on the ground.
Gen. Dempsey told NPR he is aware of Quds force’s history: “I can tell you there’s a lot of leaders of the IRGC Quds force and some of the advisers to the Shia militia that have a lot of American blood on their hands.”