Militants Seize Strategic City in March to Baghdad

BAGHDAD- In a sign of Iran’s deepening involvement in the Iraqi crisis, the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force is helping Iraq’s military and Shiite militias gear up to fight the Sunni insurgents advancing across the country, officials said Monday.

The insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border Monday, part of its goal of linking areas under its control on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier. West of Baghdad, an army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.

The Quds Force commander, Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, has been consulting in Iraq on how to roll back the al-Qaida-breakaway group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to Iraqi security officials.

Soleimani’s presence in Iraq is likely to fuel longtime Sunni suspicions about the Shiite-led government’s close ties with Tehran.

The security officials said the U.S. government was notified before Soleimani’s visit.

Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said. He has set up an operations room to coordinate the militias and visited the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad, home to the most revered Shiite shrines, and areas west of Baghdad where government forces have faced off with Islamic militants for months.

The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. A call to arms Friday from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave prominence to the need to defend the holy shrines.

Soleimani’s visit adds significantly to the sectarian slant of the mobilization by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Armed Shiite militiamen have been parading on the streets and volunteers joining the security forces are chanting Shiite religious slogans.