Baghdad: Iran played an integral role leading up to Russia's move to launch its air campaign in Syria and play a stronger role in Iraq, with one of Tehran's most powerful generals meeting for three hours with President Vladimir Putin to push for intervention, Iraqi government officials said.
Gen Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's elite Quds Force, went to Moscow in August with the message that Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria were imperative, said the two senior officials, who were later briefed on the meeting.
Soleimani and Putin reviewed maps and surveillance photos and shared intelligence, all suggesting the militant group would expand its reach to Russia's doorstep in the Caucuses if Moscow didn't act, the two officials said.
The meeting also covered plans to create a joint intelligence-sharing center between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Russia in Baghdad, which began operating later the same month.
Soleimani also met with senior Russian military officials during his visit, the officials said. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the secret meeting.
The Iranian role points to the powerful influence of the country, which is the strongest backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and is close to the Shiite-led leadership in Iraq's US-backed government.
Russia's dive into the Mideast's conflicts marks a shifting of alliances, particularly with Iraq, where officials have grumbled that the US-led coalition's air campaign against IS has not been as effective as they hoped and the prime minister has said he'd welcome Russian airstrikes.
Asked yesterday about the reported Putin-Soleimani meeting, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged it off by saying that there are too many statements from unidentified officials.
At the time, Russia's deputy foreign ministry spokesman said he has "no information whatsoever" that Soleimani visited Russia, which would have been a violation of UN travel sanctions against the general.
The Iranian government on Wednesday did not respond to requests for comment on the reported meeting.
Russian military jets launched the airstrike campaign in Syria on September 30, targeting what Moscow said were positions of the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda's branch.
But it has also heavily hit rebels on the front-line against Syria's military, raising accusations that it is intervening to boost Assad in the civil war, now in its fifth year, after a series of losses by his military.