04/09/2014 11:25 BST | Updated 04/09/2014 17:59 BST

The Shadowy Iranian General Who's Fighting 'With The US' Against Islamic State


The most powerful man in the Middle East you have never heard is on the frontline in Iraq fighting Islamic State (IS) - which is remarkable, and not just because he's 57.

The Iranian military mastermind Qassem Suleimani, who remains virtually unknown outside the region, has been photographed in Iraq with those fighting the Sunni militants of IS.

Suleimani commands the elite Quds Force, which is part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and helps Tehran wage covert operations abroad. Fighters from the Quds Force are believed to have already played a key role in boosting Bashar al Assad's government forces in next-door Syria by engaging in combat with various Syrian rebel groups - including IS.

In a supreme irony, common in the Middle East of late, Suleimani is officially designated a terrorist by the US government - but is now fighting a terrorist group that has murdered at least two US citizens - James Foley and Steven Sotloff - and has been bombed by the US air force.

This image surfaced on Twitter on Tuesday and is believed to show the shadowy Iranian general on the ground in Amerli, the northern Iraqi town besieged by IS for two months until it was routed by Iraqi forces earlier this week, with the assistance of US air strikes. The town is not far from the Iranian border.

Analyst Emile Hokayem said Suleimani was effective because "he is a professional fighter who lives like one and shows up on the battlefield".

The war against IS have set the stage for the the United States and Iran to become unlikely allies - 12 years after George W Bush included the country in his "axis of evil".

In a long New Yorker profile last year, Suleimani was dubbed "the Shadow Commander" for his role in Middle East wars and regional politics.

His influence in Iraq has been so great, he has previously been accused of "secretly running" the country.

He was designated a terrorist by the US State Department in 2007 for "Proliferation Activities and Support for Terrorism".

The designation said the Quds force had provided material to "terrorist organisations" including the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The onslaught of IS makes improved Iranian relations with the West as a possibility, as Shia-majority Iran deems Sunni Islamist militants as grave a threat as the US and UK do.

New Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi told The Huffington Post UK in June, before he took office, that the country would ask Iran to bomb IS if the US did not.

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Photo galleryBritish-Iranian Relations See Gallery

Photo galleryBritish-Iranian Relations See Gallery