General’s Death Highlights Iran’s Role In Iraq

Financial Times

December 29, 2014

General’s Death Highlights Iran’s Role In Iraq

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Borzou Daragahi in CairoAuthor alerts

Thousands of Revolutionary Guards gathered in Tehran on Monday for the funeral of Brigadier General Hamid Taghavi, the highest ranking Iranian military official to die in neighboring Iraq, amid signs of Iran’s increasingly open involvement alongside a US-led coalition fighting Sunni extremists.

The general was the most senior member of Iran’s armed forces to die abroad since the Iran-Iraq war ended 26 years ago and was known for three decades of intelligence work inside Iraq.

A Revolutionary Guard statement said the 55-year-old was killed in the Iraqi city of Samarra — site of a Shia shrine and a strategically important center considered crucial for protecting Baghdad and preventing other Shia shrines in Karbala and Najaf from falling to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis.

Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, in which more than 500,000 died on both sides, has left it fearing insecurity along its western border. Tehran insists it does not have troops on the ground in Iraq but admits its military advisers co-ordinate with the Iraqi army and Shia and Kurdish volunteer forces in their fight against Isis, which has taken control of swaths of the country.

Even Iraqis long skeptical of Iran’s ambitions in their country have warily welcomed Iran’s help, which has included intelligence sharing, frontline support and supplies of military hardware.

The US, Iraq’s other military and political patron, has also cautiously embraced Iran’s military help and acknowledged its security concerns in Iraq. “They are threatened by [Isis] just like every government in the Middle East,” said Chuck Hagel, outgoing US secretary of defense, earlier this month.

Yet US officials remain fearful that appearing too close to Iran could alienate Sunni Iraqis and Arab states that are hostile to Iran’s influence but crucial in any attempt to roll back Isis’s military and ideological gains.

The Revolutionary Guard did not give details of Taghavi’s mission in Iraq. But Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s most senior security official and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said the late commander was one of the founding members of the Guard in Iran’s southern province of Khuzestan after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and had since been involved in military intelligence overseas.

He also hinted that the general had helped organize Iraqi opposition forces against the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein when he commanded one of the main Revolutionary Guard bases used to launch insurgent attacks inside Iraq during the war in the 1980s.

Iran claims its overseas operations, mostly conducted by the Guard’s Qods force, are meant to keep its own borders safe and to counter regional rivals. “Taghavi and people like Taghavi gave their blood in Samarra so that we do not give our blood in Tehran,” Mr Shamkhani told the crowd at the funeral.

Iranian news outlets have suggested that Taghavi was killed by a sniper in what may have been a targeted attack. If so, it will ring alarm bells for other high-level Iranian security officials in Iraq, such as Brig Gen Qassem Soleimani, the commander in charge of the Qods force who frequently appears in pictures alongside Iraqi Shia and Kurdish forces.

Iran has announced deaths of at least four Revolutionary Guard members in Iraq, all of them killed in defence of the shrine complex at Samarra.

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