Iran’s Master of Iraq Chaos Still Vexes U.S.

By MICHAEL R. GORDON – New York Times –  October 2, 2012  – WASHINGTON — When a senior Iraqi intelligence official traveled to Tehran in the summer of 2007 to meet with the Iranian leadership, he quickly figured out who was in charge of Iran’s policy toward its neighbor to the west. It was not the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, who calmly explained that he was the “sole authority for Iranian actions in Iraq,” according to an account the Iraqi official later provided to American officials in Baghdad.

A soft-spoken, gray-haired operative who carries himself with the confidence that comes from having the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, General Suleimani is the antithesis of the bombastic Iranian president. Now a major general — the highest rank in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — after a promotion last year, he has been the mastermind behind two central Iranian foreign policy initiatives, exerting and expanding Tehran’s influence in the internal politics of Iraq and providing military support for the rule of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

That role has put him in direct conflict with American policy makers hoping to ensure Iraq’s future as an ally of the United States, to bring about the fall of Mr. Assad and to curb Iran’s attempt to gain influence in the region. Last year, the United States Treasury Department put General Suleimani on its sanctions list because American officials said he had been involved in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

For the American officials who had to contend with the shadow war waged by Iran during the nearly nine years United States forces were in Iraq, that role is hardly a surprise. Their communications with General Suleimani and their own internal discussions, detailed in classified documents obtained for a new book on Iraq, provide a vivid picture of a persistent and effective executor of Iran’s international objectives.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who came to know the Quds Force commander’s influence when he served in Iraq, once described General Suleimani as “a truly evil figure” in a letter to Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary. In another letter, he acknowledged the influence General Suleimani had brought to bear in Iraq. “The most sobering surprise of the week was probably the extent of direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi political intrigue,” General Petraeus wrote in an April 2008 letter to Mr. Gates.

To a greater degree than other American officials in Iraq, General Petraeus, through intermediaries, had his own back-channel interactions with General Suleimani. He became convinced that being able to send a message to him was useful, but that meeting with the Iranian general, even secretly, would have elevated the Iranian’s stature and reinforced his notion that he was entitled to a say over Iraq’s future.

General Suleimani first came to the attention of Iraqis during Iran’s bloody eight-year war with Iraq. As commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ 41st Division, he gained a reputation for leading reconnaissance missions behind Iraqi lines — so much so that the Iraqi military would single him out in its radio broadcasts, according to Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has made a career out of studying General Suleimani.

The war shaped his attitude toward Iraq, according to Ryan C. Crocker, the former American ambassador to Baghdad. “For Qassim Suleimani, the Iran-Iraq war never really ended,” Mr. Crocker said in an interview. “No human being could have come through such a World War I-style conflict and not have been forever affected. His strategic goal was an outright victory over Iraq, and if that was not possible, to create and influence a weak Iraq.”

In the late 1990s, General Suleimani was picked to lead the Quds Force, a Revolutionary Guards special operations unit. The Revolutionary Guards was formed to support revolutionary movements abroad, including in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

After the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, General Suleimani took on the mission of expanding Iran’s influence in the country, tying down the American military and, ultimately, encouraging its exit: paramount objectives for an Iranian government that was determined to be a major power in the region and that felt threatened by expanding American military presence on its western and eastern flanks.

“This was the Quds Force’s assessment: ‘We have a golden opportunity. Now we can keep the Americans busy in this country, and as much as we can we should make chaos in this country,’ ” said Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of the Revolutionary Guards who now lives in exile in the United States.

When the Green Zone in Baghdad was being pummeled by rockets in 2008, Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s vice president, asked General Suleimani in a meeting in Tehran whether he was behind the militia attacks. General Suleimani joked that if the fire “was accurate, it was his,” Mr. Abdul Mahdi later told Mr. Crocker, according to an American Embassy cable.

This article is adapted from “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama,” by Michael R. Gordon and Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, retired, published by Pantheon Books, an imprint of Random House. Wesley S. Morgan contributed reporting.