Three lawmakers from the province of Anbar told Reuters the visit by Iran’s al-Quds brigade commander could fuel sectarian tension and cast doubt on Baghdad’s assertions that the offensive is an Iraqi-led effort to defeat Islamic State, and not to settle scores with the Sunnis.
Falluja, which lies about 50 kilometers (32 miles) west of Baghdad, is a bastion of the insurgency that fought the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi’ite-led authorities that replaced former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
In recent days, Iranian media published pictures of what they said was a visit by Soleimani to Falluja and a meeting he held with the leaders of the Iraqi coalition of Shi’ite militias known as Popular Mobilization, or Hashid Shaabi.
It is the second time Soleimani has appeared in Iraqi conflict zones. About a year ago, witnesses said he was present when Popular Mobilization fighters ousted Islamic State militants from cities north of the capital.
An Iraqi government spokesman did not confirm Soleimani’s visit and stressed that Iranian advisors are present in Iraq in order to assist in the war on Islamic State (IS) in the same capacity as those of the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition.
Member of parliament (MP) Hamid al-Mutlaq rejected that, however.
“We are Iraqis and not Iranians,” he said. “Would Turkish or Saudi advisers be welcomed to assist in the battle?” he added, drawing a parallel between the three regional powers bordering Iraq — mainly-Sunni Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Shi’ite Iran.
“Soleimani’s presence is suspicious and a cause for concern; he is absolutely not welcome in the area,” said Falluja parliamentarian Salim Muttar al-Issawi.
“I believe that the presence of such an official from the (Iranian) Revolutionary Guard could have sectarian implications,” said another MP from the city, Liqaa Wardi.
Based in part on a Reuters report