The commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, has reportedly assisted Iraqi Kurdish and Shi'ite militias to defeat Islamic State (IS) militants in the towns of Jalawla and Saadiya in Diyala Province.
The Quds Force is the branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) responsible for overseas operations.
Kurdish Peshmerga and Shi'ite militias said on November 23 that they had retaken the two towns, which are about 110 kilometers from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Kurdish outlet BAS News quoted Peshmerga sources as saying that the operation against Jalawla and Saadiya was led by Suleimani and Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Shi'ite Badr Brigade.
The U.S.-based think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) suggested that the reports of Sulemani's involvement in the offensive are credible. "The close proximity of [Jalawla] to Iran's Western border suggests that Suleimani would likely lead efforts to secure the Iraqi territory," the AEI wrote on November 24.
The Kurdish news website Rudaw quoted "commanders involved in the fighting" in Jalawla and Saadiya as saying that Iran had given "military advice" and that Iranian combat troops had not been involved in the offensive.
Following reports that Iraqi forces had driven IS militants out of the two towns, Iranian news outlets published new photographs of Suleimani, purportedly near Jalawla and Saadiya.
Iranian journalists also shared the photos on Twitter:
Iran is opposed to IS but has refused to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist Sunni group. Iranian political and military leaders have frequently accused the United States and its Western allies of creating IS and using the strikes against IS militants in Iraq and Syria in order to gain regional power.
On November 25, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reiterated this position via his Twitter account, calling the U.S.-led coalition a "lie":
Khamenei's accusation was not merely intended to reemphasize his previous accusations that the U.S.-led coalition is a sham, however. By accusing the United States of using IS -- a Sunni group -- to "keep the war against Muslims alive," the supreme leader was able to claim both that Washington is attempting to sow discord among Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and to stress that Iran is supporting both Sunni and Shi'ite groups in the region, including the Sunni Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizballah.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk