Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander of the elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), played a significant role in launching the Iraqi resistance against the US occupation, and subsequently, against the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS.
The story of the military operation that led to ISIS’ defeat began with a meeting between Soleimani and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, who decided to summon a group of Hezbollah field officers based in Syria and Lebanon to a meeting in Damascus. There they would gather to determine how they would help the Iraqis defeat ISIS.
One of these officers, a senior Hezbollah military commander who accompanied Soleimani and fought alongside him in many battles, shared the details of this story in an exclusive interview with The Cradle. To preserve his anonymity, we have used the name Sajed below.
The Cradle: With the emergence of ISIS, Qassem Soleimani’s name began to feature more prominently, both globally and in the region. However, his work in Iraq had begun long before that. What was his role in the Iraqi resistance against the US occupation of Iraq?
Sajed: Hajj Qassem is the commander of the Quds Force in the IRGC, he was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, and he knew Iraq well. When the Americans occupied Iraq, some formations that were active against Saddam Hussein’s regime decided to direct their efforts to resisting the occupation.
They asked for Hajj Qassem’s help, and he did not delay in responding. He helped organize these groups, establish training camps, and personally supervised the provision of support, equipment, and weapons to the Iraqi resistance factions.
The Cradle: Following the expansion of ISIS control, Soleimani began to appear more often in public. In one of his speeches, Nasrallah said that Hezbollah was at the forefront of those who were with him. What was the task assigned to Hezbollah and its field officers by Soleimani, and what were the instructions and objectives provided by Nasrallah?
Sajed: After a meeting between Hajj Qassem and Sayyed Nasrallah, a decision was taken to summon a group of Hezbollah cadres, between 12 and 13 people, to a meeting with Hajj Qassem in Damascus. There he informed them that they would go to Iraq to help our brothers in the Iraqi resistance, by transferring the experiences they gained in resisting the Israeli occupation and in the Syrian war.
They were of various specializations, including operational commanders. Everyone was surprised that the mission had just begun and that they were to travel to Baghdad immediately. Some of them asked for an opportunity to bring their personal belongings or to say goodbye to their families, but Hajj Qassem insisted that some of them would leave with him that same night for Baghdad, while the rest were to meet him there shortly afterwards.
The first batch left with Hajj Qassem on the same flight to Baghdad and spent their first night at the home of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (the late deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs). After that, the rest arrived, and the number reached about 30. Hajj Qassem personally distributed roles and missions, and said:
“All of you participated in major operations against Israel and against the takfiris in Syria. What is required of you is to transfer your experiences to our Iraqi brothers, and to show them the same spirit with which you fought the Israelis and defended the shrine of Sayyida Zainab (the burial place outside Damascus of the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter).”
Simply put, that was the mission.
After distributing the tasks, each headed to the location assigned to him. This was before the fatwa of the supreme Shia authority in Iraq, Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, on 13 June, 2014, which led to the formation of the PMU, with the aim of confronting the expansion of ISIS and its control over large parts of Iraq.
In addition to ISIS at the time, there were other armed factions [aligned with the terror group] such as the Military Council, which included various militant organizations, including the Twentieth Revolution, the Salah al-Din Brigades, the Brigade of the Messenger of God, the Al-Qaqaa Brigades, and groups from the Baath Party. At that time, they [ISIS] were mainly extending their control towards western Baghdad, after they had captured the city of Mosul, and approached the city of Samarra.
The Cradle: Western and Persian Gulf media promoted the narrative that Soleimani was implementing an Iranian agenda in Iraq. You worked closely with him – is this true, and what was his actual goal in defending Iraq and achieving victory over ISIS and other terrorist organizations?
Sajed: This question should be directed to the Iraqis. I believe that anyone who aims to implement a private agenda will not go so far as to endanger his life. Many times, Hajj Qassem was at the forefront of the attacking groups, and he could have died at any moment.
For example, he was in one of the Hummers that opened the road to Samarra. I do not think that Iran’s agenda in Iraq is based on opening a road to a city, and requires endangering the life of a leader like Hajj Qassem.
His mission was to place all his capabilities and the capabilities of the Islamic Republic in Iran at the service of the Iraqi government. In all his meetings with the Iraqis, he used to tell them:
“The decision is yours. We are only here to help, and anyone who does not comply with your orders can be asked to leave immediately.”
Even on the behavioral level, it was not possible to distinguish between him and any of the other fighters.
The Cradle: We have heard that Soleimani is called the “Man of the Ditches.” Does that mean he was present, on the ground, in some of the battles? Tell us about that.
Sajed: I can say that Hajj Qassem was personally present in all the battles. On 31 August, 2014, he participated in lifting the siege on the city of Amerli. The siege of the city, inhabited by Shia Turkmen, began after the fall of Mosul in July 2014. ISIS militants took control of all the villages surrounding Amerli, isolating the city and depriving it of water, food and medicine for 80 days.
Hajj Qassem was at the forefront of the attacking convoy to lift the siege, and he was ambushed tightly when an explosive device exploded in the Hummer he was traveling in, killing two of those who were with him and injuring two others.
A similar thing happened in the battle of Jurf al-Sakhar in October 2014. This is a very complex area geographically for any attacking forces because of the dense palm groves that surround it, which serves as a cover for the forces defending it. It is also a very important area from a strategic point of view, and it formed an enclave for ISIS through which it can reach the holy cities such as Karbala and Najaf.
After two weeks of attacks, the attacking forces were unable to cut off the road and reach the river bank until Hajj Qassem came. He asked to bring an armored Hummer to head to the river bank, which was about three kilometers away. Getting there practically meant liberating the area from the grip of ISIS. He wanted to explore the area, so he climbed the berm, which was under fire by medium weapons.
One of us said to him, “Do you want us to die?” He replied: “I do not want us to die, but rather that we open the road.” Then the commander of Badr Operations, Abu Muntazer, said to him: “I will take care of things.” To which Hajj Qassem replied: “I will be with you.” But Abu Muntazer insisted that he advance with a group of fighters, and that Hajj Qassem join them later.
After less than ten minutes, Hajj Qassem decided to set off. Immediately, as soon as we crossed the road, Jurf al-Sakhar slipped out of ISIS control like magic. Also in the battle of Al-Dhuluiya, in December 2014, Hajj Qassem insisted on accompanying a young man on a motorbike to explore ISIS-controlled territory on his own. This battle constituted a quantum leap in the war against ISIS, after it liberated the road between Baghdad and Samarra from the terrorists.
The Cradle: There are those who claim that Soleimani fought alongside the US, with the Americans providing air cover while he was on the ground. How true is this assumption?
Sajed: The Americans did not participate in any operation to liberate Iraq from ISIS. In the battle of Tikrit, in March 2015, the PMU finished their preparations to liberate the city, but the Americans intervened with the Iraqi government to prevent the PMU from carrying out the attack.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi decided to assign the anti-terrorism forces and the federal police to carry out the operation, and US planes bombed targets inside the city. When the government forces entered, they were unable to advance much, and it turned out that the American bombing did not cause much damage to ISIS.
As a result, the city was not liberated until after the participation of the PMU in the battle. The US military did not provide air coverage for any of the PMU operations, nor did they participate in any operation to liberate Iraq from ISIS.
The Cradle: After the defeat of ISIS, there was a widespread narrative that attributed the victory to the US-led coalition and tried to present Soleimani as an international terrorist. What is the real story?
Sajed: The coalition forces have not participated in any operations against ISIS. It rejected the request of the government of (former Iraqi Prime Minister) Nuri al-Maliki to intervene against the terrorist organization, and refused to provide the Iraqi army with weapons. The Iraqi army had only four tanks without ammunition, and they were used as binoculars for night vision only.
The only battle in which the Americans participated was in Mosul. For us, resistance is resistance to occupation whoever it may be. But for the Americans, resistance is legitimate when it is against, say President Bashar al-Assad, and it becomes “terrorism” when it is against Israel.
The Cradle: What was the turning point in the war that marked the beginning of ISIS’ defeat?
Sajed: The Battle of Baiji from late December 2014 until late October 2015 was the decisive battle that allowed the resistance to take control of the highway from Baghdad to Baiji, and use Baiji as a base to launch a counter offensive on Mosul.
The fall of Mosul began when the PMU cut the road between Mosul and Syria and prevented supplies from reaching the terrorists in the city. Although the Americans contributed to the battle of Mosul, they were responsible for 99 percent of the losses suffered by the resistance forces.
The Cradle: How were the US responsible?
Sajed: Most of the casualties were caused by suicide bombers. They were driving cars full of explosives, armored and closed on all sides, so that their drivers could not see the road. It was their drones that guided them to the paths that they should take, and here we did not see US planes or US jamming devices stop them.
The Cradle: Were the PMU limited to Shias only?
Sajed: Of course not. There were and still are Sunnis, Christians, and Yazidis.
The Cradle: There are about 5,000 ISIS members in prisons controlled by the Kurds today. In the event of facilitating their escape, is there a possibility to revive the organization?
Sajed: If this happens the game will be exposed. However, 5,000 is a meager number in a country like Iraq. I think it is impossible for them to be able to even form a small emirate.
The Cradle: Despite the role played by Iran in achieving victory over ISIS, there are negative feelings towards it among a large number of Iraqis – why is this the case?
Sajed: The reason is the media machine that blamed the Islamic Republic for the widespread corruption in Iraq, once under the pretext of its support for the government of Nuri al-Maliki, and again under the pretext of its support for the government of Haider al-Abadi.
Yes, Iran supported the Iraqi government, but it is not responsible for the policy adopted by this government. Supporters of the US and its followers in Iraq made great efforts in the media to hold Iran responsible for all the mistakes committed by Iraqi politicians, in order to turn the Iraqis against the Iranians.
The Cradle: What do you think was the motive behind the assassination of Soleimani on Iraqi soil?
Sajed: They [the US] felt that the presence of Hajj Qassem would be an obstacle to their adoption of the victory over ISIS. He was a major obstacle to the American project in West Asia, just as Hajj Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was a major obstacle to the same project in Iraq.