By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister said on Thursday that he welcomed Iranian assistance in Iraq's battle against Islamic State but suggested unease with the prominence of a top Iranian general, who has been widely seen in photos from Iraq's battlefields.
Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's al-Quds brigade of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was almost an invisible man until Islamic State's Sunni jihadists overran cities in northern and central Iraq last year.
But photos of Soleimani, whose force engages in operations outside of Iran, are now commonplace. He was even seen directing fighting in the battle to recapture from Islamic State the Sunni city of Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, speaking to a forum in Washington, suggested the photos themselves sent the wrong message and said he was trying to find out who had taken them.
"To be honest with you, it's (a) very sensitive issue. Iraqi sovereignty is very important for us," Abadi told a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
"Iraqis are sacrificing to save their country. To make it appear as if others are doing this on behalf of Iraqis, Iraqis wouldn’t accept that."
Abadi said it was "a bad idea" for Soleimani to have such a visible presence fighting Islamic State in Iraq.
The prime minister said he had raised the issue of the photos with Tehran, which denied any role. "They claim it’s not them that’s been doing this propaganda. Somebody else – I have yet to find who – but somebody else is," Abadi said.
Iran's role in Iraq's war has loomed large during Abadi's trip to Washington this week.
Iran-backed Shi'ite militias have played a major and growing role in battling the Sunni Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, that emerged from the chaos in Iraq and neighboring Syria and swept through northern Iraq last June.
In remarks to a small group of reporters on Wednesday, Abadi expressed appreciation for Iran's assistance, noting that Iran had allowed its advisers on the battlefield.
The United States has provided 3,000 troops. But it limited their role to advising and training Iraqis away from combat, while supporting the ground campaign with daily air strikes.
U.S. President Barack Obama, after talks with Abadi, warned Iran on Tuesday that its fighters must respect Iraq's sovereignty and answer to the government in Baghdad in the battle.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by David Storey and Jonathan Oatis)