If, AS is threatened, the United States or Israel attacks Iran--and there are signs that a major strike maybe likely before George W. Bush's term expires next January--a key figure in unleashing much of the threatened retaliation by Tehran is a shadowy general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who until a few weeks ago was little known, even to western intelligence services.
Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, who commands the corps' elite and largely clandestine Quds Force, has long been the invisible man in Iran's intelligence hierarchy and an enigma to the US intelligence community that is one of his main adversaries. He is hailed as a national hero in Iran, but apart from a couple of brief television appearances in recent years has rarely been seen in public.
Until recently the Americans and their allies knew little about him. Former US intelligence agent Philip Giraldi, who spent years operating undercover in the Middle East in the 1980s when Iran was conducting constant "black operations" across the region and in Europe, recalls that although Suleimani was no doubt engaged in these spying and assassination missions he was "pretty much unknown to US intelligence".
Giraldi said there was a file on the softly-spoken general at Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia, at that time, "but it was pretty much empty".
These days, the Americans have come to appreciate how dangerous Suleimani is and how crucial a role he plays in Iran's growing power in the Middle East and its environs. The US Treasury Department has branded him a terrorist, along with his entire military command. In March 2007, he was listed along with other senior Iranians in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747 that imposed sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its nuclear programme.
The general emerged from the shadows in March by brokering a truce in a major battle in Basra between the Mahdi Army, the militia of firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, and the security forces of the Shi'ite-dominated Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, and their allied militias, that was in danger of spinning out of control into a full-scale uprising by Sadr's followers.
The general's ability to end a week of intra-Shi'ite slaughter on the Shatt Al Arab, that was threatening to spread to Baghdad, underlined the authority and power Suleimani wields within the inner circles of the notoriously opaque and secrecy-obsessed Tehran regime and in Iraq. More importantly in the months ahead, his actions illustrate how this perplexing figure is so adept at meshing covert, aggressive operations with strategic diplomacy, a skill his American opponents seem to lack.
The Basra ceasefire also confirmed Iran's immense influence in Iraq, and the extent to which Suleimani's organisation has penetrated the country, from the leadership down to the grassroots, especially in the Shi'ite-dominated south. This strategic region bordering Iran holds two-thirds of Iraq's known oil reserves and is the country's only outlet to the Gulf.
It also testified to Suleimani's control over the Mahdi Army, its main rival, the Badr Organisation, military arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and other Shi'ite militias that the Americans say Tehran is backing to weaken and cripple US efforts in Iraq.
Suleimani was able to impose the truce because it is the Quds Force that is supposedly arming, funding and training Iraqi groups in furtherance of Tehran's grand design to dominate Iraq following Saddam Hussein's demise. "If the Americans want to stop things in Iraq they'll have to talk to Suleimani," a knowledgeable diplomat commented.
So far as is known, that has not happened, but it remains an intriguing possibility as Washington and Tehran edge towards direct negotiations on Iraq. Maliki's beleaguered government has already broken the ice.
Suleimani's decision to crack the Iranian whip in Basra resulted from a direct appeal for help from Baghdad. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who during his secessionist war against Saddam was allied with Tehran, secretly met Suleimani at the Mariwan crossing on the Iraq-Iran border on 28-29 March.
At about the same time, Iraqi legislators from Iranian-backed Shi'ite parties that underpin Maliki's US-backed coalition secretly travelled to Tehran, under the noses of US and British intelligence, to meet Suleimani, the man they knew called the shots and had the power to enforce his decisions.
Ali Al Deeb, a senior member of Maliki's Shi'ite Dawa Party, and Hadi Al Ameri, head of the Badr Organisation, asked Suleimani to get Sadr to pull back his fighters and stop the flow of Iranian weapons to Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Tehran had viewed the slaughter in Basra, right on its border, with great alarm, but, not surprisingly, has kept silent about its part in ending the fighting, and especially about Suleimani's key role in the affair.
Suleimani, according to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "represents the sharp point of the Iranian spear ... He is also Iran's leading strategist on foreign policy."
Western commentators have portrayed the enigmatic Suleimani as a "peacemaker" following his intervention in the Basra bloodletting. But what they have overlooked--or ignored--is that it was Suleimani's clandestine machinations in Iraq that helped pit Shi'ite against Shi'ite in a power struggle for Basra, Iraq's second city, and the vast Rumaila oilfields, a strategic prize for the Iranians.
The Basra episode is a perfect example of how Suleimani has been adept at turning up the heat in Iraq, then lowering the temperature when it suits Iran's interests. The simultaneous support for Maliki and Sadr, is characteristic of Suleimani, according to people who know him. Rather than pick a single ally, as Americans tend to do, he will choose at least two. By riding several horses at once, he maximises Iran's opportunities and reduces the risks.
Suleimani has also engaged in political scheming in Iraq. In January 2005, when Iraq held its first parliamentary elections since Saddam was booted out in 2003, he torpedoed US plans to keep interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a pro-western Shi'ite and former CIA asset, in power. But Suleimani had put together a group of pro-Iranian Shi'ites who he covertly aided with bundles of cash, printing presses and broadcasting systems. Allawi lost the election.
In April 2006, as negotiations to find a new prime minister bogged down in stalemate after a second round of elections, Suleimani slipped into Baghdad to ensure that someone who would be acceptable to Tehran would lead the government. Al Maliki, who had spent more than two decades in Iran after fleeing Saddam's brutality, got the job.
According to US intelligence sources--and much to the Americans' chagrin--that wasn't the only time that Suleimani has been able to sneak into Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily guarded enclave on the Tigris where the US embassy and military headquarters, and the Iraqi government's ministries are located.
To underline the extent of Iranian penetration of Iraq and the planning that has gone into that operation, Khamenei reportedly put Suleimani in charge of setting up a clandestine network there as early as September 2002 with the mission of dominating the country once Saddam was ousted. That was six months before the Americans invaded and, to Tehran's great satisfaction, got rid of one of its most hated enemies.
According to US and Iraqi government officials, the general's vast intelligence network in Iraq includes the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hasan Kazimi Qomi, a former IRGC officer, and every senior official in the embassy.
Suleimani is believed to have been born on 11 March, 1957, in the holy city of Qom, the most important religious centre in Iran. He is understood to be married with four children. Little is known of his early life beyond that his family was a humble one. It is only when he joined the Revolutionary Guards, formed by Khomeini to protect the fundamentalist regime he established after overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in January 1979, that one is able to get a fix on this elusive figure.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran on 22 September, 1980, Suleimani was a green lieutenant. But he quickly distinguished himself in battle, often on intelligence-gathering missions behind Iraqi lines. He won rapid promotion and in his late 20s was given command of the IRGC's 41st Tharallah Division.
The war ended in a stalemate, pretty much where it had started. Iran's then president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (still a powerful figure in Tehran), took Suleimani under his wing and fast-tracked him into key IRGC posts, grooming him to take charge of its elite covert wing. Atone point in the 1990s, Suleimani was appointed IRGC commander in southeastern Iran based in the city of Kerman.
The region lies along the border with Afghanistan, the world's main producer of opium, the base for heroin, and is one of the main routes for smuggling the narcotics to Turkey and then to Europe. Suleimani's wartime experiences made him the ideal commander to lead the fight against the smugglers. He apparently impressed his superiors, for he was then sent to college in Tehran, where he studied management. In 2000, he was given command of the Quds Force.
Sources within the intelligence services of the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq say that the Quds Force has been linked to virtually every terrorist incident over the last three decades in which an Iranian influence was detected.
The Quds Force was established in the early phase of the Iran-Iraq war as a special unit to operate behind enemy lines, answerable directly to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The influence of the Quds Force, and Suleimani, extends far a field, throughout the Arab Gulf states, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, largely through links with Hizbullah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and into Europe, Asia and Latin America.
According to intelligence sources, Suleimani personally headed covert Quds Force operations in Bosnia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and in Central Asia. After 1996 he headed an Iranian liaison team with the Northern Alliance, a gathering of Afghani warlords that included Shi'ites, which was battling the Taliban--with little success--long before the CIA arrived in force with bagfuls of cash after 9/11. "He gained a lot of experience in Afghanistan in building cells," one US official noted.
It was only in 2002, after Suleimani stepped out of the shadows and accompanied then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Kabul for a summit with Afghan President Hamiz Karzai that the Americans finally took notice of this enigmatic figure who would cause them such distress in Iraq.
If Suleimani gets the green light to unleash revenge attacks against the US, Israel and the West in the event of a US strike, Hizbullah, created and nurtured by Tehran from its earliest days a quarter of a century ago, will undoubtedly be one of Suleimani's main weapons.
The Quds Force played an important role in the formation of Hizbullah following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Suleimani established close links with Hizbullah leaders, in particular with the late Imad Mughniyeh, the movement's security chief and the alleged mastermind of its devastating campaign of suicide bombings against the Israelis and Americans in Lebanon throughout the 1980s. Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus on 12 February under mysterious circumstances.
Suleimani has frequently made clandestine visits to the Bekaa and the Hizbullah strongholds in south Beirut and south Lebanon. He was deeply involved in the July-August 2006 war between Hizbullah and the Israelis and is believed to have been in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Hizbullah's heartland, during the fighting. According to one account he told a friend at the time that he'd "taken a break" from Iraq to "run things" in Lebanon.
He supervised the delivery of Iranian medium-range rockets to Hizbullah forces in the Bekaa in the months leading up to the five-week war. Most of these were destroyed in their bunkers with devastating accuracy by the Israeli Air Force in the first hours of the conflict, seriously impairing Hizbullah's ability to hit Tel Aviv and Israel's heavily populated central region.
That was a serious intelligence failure, presumably by Hizbullah, but even deprived of their most powerful rockets, it fought the Israelis to a standstill. That was a big feather in Suleimani's cap. Since then he has helped Hizbullah rebuild and enlarge its rocket arsenal for use if Israel attacks Iran.
SULEIMANI'S QUDS FORCE is responsible for all the Tehran regime's clandestine operations abroad, ranging from setting up sleeper cells around the globe--a network likely to be activated if Iran is attacked--to assassinating enemies of the regime and providing funds, arms and training for militant groups such as Hizbullah, or Hamas (even though it's a Sunni group).
According to Israeli analyst Yossi Melman, an authority on intelligence matters, the general has "prominent status" within Iran's powerful and many tentacled intelligence-security establishment. "Suleimani is a quintessential product of the revolution who has spent most of his professional career in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards," Melman observed.…