BAGHDAD (AP) — When Islamic State militants retreated from the embattled town of Jurf al-Sakher last week, the Iraqi military was quick to flaunt a rare victory. State television showed tanks and Humvees parading through the town and soldiers touring government buildings that the Sunni extremist group had occupied since August.
However, photos soon emerged on independent Iraqi news websites revealing a more discreet presence — the Iranian general Ghasem Soleimani, whose name has become synonymous with the handful of victories attributed to Iraqi ground forces. Local commanders said Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite militia group was also involved.
The U.S. has awkwardly found itself on the same side as Iran and Hezbollah in the war against the Islamic State group, which rampaged across much of northern and western Iraq in June. While U.S. military advisers have been coordinating coalition airstrikes from within heavily fortified bases, Soleimani and his commanders are on the front lines and would assume a key role in the retaking of major cities.
That could prove a major impediment to addressing the grievances of Iraq's Sunni minority. Iran and Hezbollah are closely linked with Iraqi Shiite militias, which have also played a key role in driving IS out of the so-called Baghdad Belt of Sunni villages ringing the capital. The sectarian militias have long been implicated in brutality against Sunnis, and their advance could undermine efforts to knit the troubled country together.
Militia commanders told The Associated Press that dozens of advisers from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were on the front lines in Jurf al-Sakher. They said the advisers provided weapons training to some 7,000 Iraqi troops and militia fighters and coordinated with military commanders ahead of the operation.
One commander, who agreed to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Zeinab, said Soleimani began planning the Jurf al-Sakher operation three months ago. The cleared town, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital, lies on a road often used by Shite pilgrims.
Iraqi military officials declined to discuss Soleimani's presence in Jurf al-Sakher, or in previous victories where he is known to have played a commanding role. Those successes include halting the IS advance in the town of Amirli in August and the city of Samarra in June.
But senior figures with the Revolutionary Guard have publicly acknowledged Soleimani's role in Iraq's war with IS.
As for Hezbollah, it has openly joined Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces against mainly Sunni rebels — a decision that has fueled sectarian tensions in Lebanon. But Hezbollah has declined to comment on reports of its involvement in Iraq.
In July, officials in Lebanon said a Hezbollah commander was killed while on a "jihadi mission" in Iraq. Ibrahim Mohammed al-Haj was buried in Lebanon and his funeral attended by top Hezbollah officials. It was the first known Hezbollah death in Iraq since the lightning IS advance in June.
A Lebanese official close to the group said Hezbollah is known to have "a limited number of advisers" in Iraq who are not directly involved in fighting, and that al-Haj was one of them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Iraqi officials have also said that a handful of advisers from Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, are offering front-line guidance to Iraqi Shiite militias fighting Sunni extremists north of Baghdad. But it is not known if any Hezbollah men are actually fighting.
Iraqi Shiite militias were implicated in the mass killing of Sunnis at the height of the country's sectarian carnage in 2006 and 2007 and have more recently been accused of brutalizing Sunni captives.
Sunnis are also deeply suspicious of Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has played an outsized role in Iraqi affairs since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government.
"It is true that Iraq needs any kind of help in the current situation, but this help should be public and part of the international efforts," Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq told the AP. "This undeclared Iranian help harms national reconciliation and the sovereignty of Iraq."
Amnesty International said last month that militias have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians with the tacit support of the Iraqi government in retaliation for Islamic State attacks.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to reign in the militias and establish a national guard to mobilize Sunnis against the extremists. But it could take months to assemble such a force, and in the meantime Soleimani's militias are the best placed to aid Iraq's beleaguered military in regaining the initiative against the Islamic State group.
Soleimani's Quds Force, the special operations arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, has been involved for years in training and financing Iraq's Shiite militias. It has also long worked with Hezbollah in Lebanon and has been aiding Assad's forces.
In June, Revolutionary Guard advisers under Soleimani provided guidance for Shiite militiamen in shelling Sunni insurgent positions around Samarra, a Sunni-majority city north of Baghdad that is home to a revered Shiite shrine, local commanders said. Soleimani was also seen as playing a key role in ending the Islamic State siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amirli. And a top Revolutionary Guard general said in September that Soleimani had even helped Kurdish fighters defend their regional capital, Irbil.
Militia commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media, describe Soleimani as "fearless" — one pointing out that the Iranian general never wears a flak jacket, even on the front lines.
"Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life," one militia commander said.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.