KARLA’S RIGHT HAND

01.06.15 8:40 PM ET

What an Iranian Funeral Tells Us About the Wars in Iraq

Gen. Tahgavi was almost unknown to Iran’s public, and even more mysterious to the West, but he was a key figure in the Quds Force running the fight against ISIS.

Iranians are used to regarding Gen. Qasem Suleimani as a symbol of the country’s military might; the Iranian media love to present him as a formidable spirit who leads victorious campaigns against Iran’s enemies. Some have likened Suleimani to John le Carré’s fictional spy Karla, the nemesis of the West during the Cold War. So when recent photographs showed the leader of the Quds Force looking tired and overcome with grief, holding his head in his hands, it came as something of a surprise. As he tried to make his way through a crowd of mourners late last month, he looked preoccupied and even disoriented.

The photographs show Suleimani at the funeral of Gen. Hamid Taghavi, a 55-year-old Revolutionary Guard Corps commander killed in Iraq on December 27 by a sniper from the so-called Islamic State or, as it is widely known, ISIS.

What that funeral and the eulogies given there reveal about Iran’s past and present operations in Iraq is a lot, and it suggests just how shallow, by comparison, is the renewed Amercian presence deployed to help fight ISIS.

According to the website Raja News, which has ties to the Revolutionary Guards, Taghavi was leading operations along the Samarra axis in the Balad area of Iraq’s Saladin province when he was struck and killed by the gunman’s bullet. (Note the word “leading,” not advising.) News sites that regularly publish statements by ISIS militants say the group has claimed responsibility for the assassination.

The Revolutionary Guards public relations office announced Taghavi’s death on December 28. Such statements are rare, as the Guards routinely avoid going public with news about the demise of one of their commanders.

Suleimani was joined by other high-profile mourners at the Tehran ceremony, including Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, as well as the top commander of the Revolutionary Guards and the minister of intelligence, who all gave messages of condolence, as did the previous intelligence minister.

Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme Security Council, praised Gen. Taghavi’s military record dating back to the early days of the revolution more than 30 years ago, and in doing so suggested just how deeply embedded Iran has long been in Iraq. It was Taghavi’s work in intelligence and his reputation as the founder of the Iraqi Mujahedin, the holy warriors fighting then-dictator Saddam Hussein, that made Taghavi a commander “who others found easy to accept as a leader,” said Shamkani.  

Basiji Commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi credited Taghavi with playing a key role in the creation of the Badr Force, a more ambitious paramilitary Iraqi Shiite organization that was set up during the Iran-Iraq war to fight against Saddam and remains now the most important pro-Iranian armed organization in Iraq. One of its top officials is the current minister of the interior in Baghad.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Taghavi was the commander of the Guards’ Ramadan Camp, which specialized in irregular warfare. According to the Guards-affiliated newspaper Javan, its mission was to gather intelligence from behind enemy lines and organize anti-Saddam armed groups. In other words, it was a prototype for the Quds Force.

In the decades since, Ayatollah Khamenei has used the Quds Force’s skills in such intelligence operations and irregular warfare to achieve his goals in the region, including in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, and many Western officials link it to what they define as Iranian-backed terrorism.

Qasem Suleimani was appointed as commander of the force in 1997. In recent years his influence has grown—and is no longer restricted to military and security issues in the countries to which he was assigned. “The regional case is completely in the hands of Commander Ghasem Soleimani,” wrote the website Iran-e Hastei [Nuclear Iran], run by Mehdi Mohammadi, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “In Iraq, the last word—and Iran’s official position—belongs to Suleimani.”

A video clip recently published by the Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group Saraya Al-Khorasani mentions Gen. Taghavi as its founder, referring to him with the Arabic nom de guerre of Aba Maryam, or “Mary’s Father.” In the clip, Taghavi speaks fluent Arabic, something that is not uncommon for Iranian commanders working in paramilitary or other similar forces in border areas or outside Iran.

Apart from the video, the Saraya Al-Khorasani group has made no official declaration that it is linked to Taghavi. But veteran journalist and Iraq-watcher Reza Veisi told IranWire that although Suleimani has operational oversight in Iraq, it is very possible that Taghavi he had some involvement with the group. “Under Suleimani several military branches have taken shape [in Iraq] which are run by Iran and the Iranian military,” he said. “Iran provides them with all that they need, from arms and logistics to propaganda and medical services. They all have offices and centers of communication in Iran.”

On October 28, 2014, the website Mashregh News, which has close ties to the Revolutionary Guards, published a list of the most important Iraqi paramilitary groups advised by the Guards, including the Badr force, Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades, Saraya Khorasani, Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front, and Imam Ali’s Brigades. According to the Mashregh report, the Saraya Khorasani group took part in operations in the province of Babel (Babylon), 85 kilometers from Baghdad, in October 2014. Among the commanders involved were Hadi Ameri from the Badr force, Dr. Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, the new Iraqi minister of the interior and a member of Badr’s central committee. The advisers, led by Suleimani, included none other than Taghavi.

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Speaking at his funeral, one Iranian commander—said to be offering his eulogy on behalf of Suleimani—described Taghavi’s achievements in recent months: He secured the road from Karbala to Baghdad and was present at operations to push back Islamic State fighters from the border with Iran and to protect country borders on the Tigris River, often leaving his family and home for up to two months at a time. He prepared operations south of Samarra and north of Baghdad.

“He was a brave field commander and an expert in intelligence, and in organizing popular and tribal forces,” said the eulogist. “Nobody could do the job that he did.”

The account goes some way in showing just how present the Quds and other forces are in Iraq at this point in time. Commanders, including Taghavi, have put three decades of friendship with the Shi’ite paramilitary forces in Iraq to effective use. Taghavi and others might not be household names in Iran, somewhat remote from the everyday machinations of domestic military operations and the changing political scene. But in the shadows, they have prospered. And, just every once in a while, the public gets a glimpse of the scale of the power they command—and how they have helped shape Iran today, as well as its future. 

This article was adapted from one originally published by IranWire.