TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A top Iranian general and 70 of his forces were on the ground in Iraq this summer, helping Kurdish fighters defend the regional capital Irbil against Islamic State militants, a senior commander from Iran's Revolutionary Guard said Wednesday.
The commander's remarks appeared to confirm for the first time that Iranian military forces are playing a battlefield role alongside Iraqis against the Islamic State extremist group, though it was not clear whether they were involved in combat or merely serving as advisers. Iran has said it provides advice to Iraq's government but has denied sending combatants or weapons.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who runs the Guard's aerospace division, said top Gen. Ghasem Soleimani was instrumental in preventing the fall of Irbil.
"If it were not for Iran's help, the IS would have captured (Iraq's) Kurdistan," he said on state television late Tuesday. "Our respected General... Soleimani stood up to IS with only 70 forces and did not allow them to enter Irbil."
The Islamic State militants approached the outskirts of Irbil in August, prompting the United States to launch airstrikes that helped Kurdish forces drive them back.
Soleimani has since 1997 been head of the Quds Force, a division of the elite Revolutionary Guard that carries out special operations outside Iran. He is believed to have played a key role in mobilizing Iranian allies across the region, including the Lebanese Hezbollah group and Shiite militias in Iraq.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has reportedly described Soleimani as a "living martyr" in recognition of his work.
Although Iran and the United States share a common enemy in the Islamic State group, a deep-seated lack of trust has so far kept the longtime foes from publicly allying against the extremists.
While the U.S. has led air strikes against Islamic State militants, Iran is believed to have played a key role on the ground mobilizing Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite forces, including for last month's retaking of the northern Iraqi city of Amirli , which had been besieged by Islamic State militants for more than two months.
Iran fears that the U.S. wants to use the fight against the Islamic State group as a pretext to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, a close ally of Tehran. The Obama administration has repeatedly called on Assad to resign and ruled out any cooperation with Damascus, even against the Islamic State group.
The U.S. has not invited Iran to join the emerging coalition fighting the Islamic State group and Iran has said it would not join in any case. Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani on Wednesday accused some coalition members of aiding the same militants they are now fighting -- a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are strong backers of the Syrian rebels.