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VOA - Earlier in April he was spotted in the northern countryside of the central Syrian province of Hama, where the forces of President Bashar al-Assad have been battling a surprise rebel offensive and reportedly sustaining high casualties.
On Monday, according to local news reports, General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, a special forces branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was in Kirkuk, 1,000 kilometers from Hama, trying to broker a deal between Shi'ite militias and the Kurds about eventual control of the disputed northern Iraqi city.
The London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a Qatari-owned pan-Arab news outlet, reported that Soleimani's visit to Iraq's Kurdish region lasted several days, and during that time the Quds Force commander stressed that Kirkuk should remain a city for all Iraqis and shouldn't be annexed by the Kurds. He said military clashes between Kurds and Shi'ites should be avoided.
As the wars have raged in Syria and Iraq, and as Iran has deepened its military involvement, Soleimani increasingly has taken on the role, according to some analysts, as Iran's viceroy in the Levant — a mixture of soldier and satrap.
FILE - Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani attends an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11 2016.
Credited as strategist
Syrian rebel commanders credit the silver-haired 59-year-old with being the principal architect last year of Assad's military strategy to retake the rebel-controlled eastern half of the city of Aleppo, and of channeling rebel militias into the neighboring province of Idlib, shaping what military strategists term a "kill zone."
Analysts and Western intelligence agencies closely observe Soleimani's movements as they try to work out what Iran's longer-term goals are for Syria and Iraq. Will both be turned into what will be seen as provinces of Iran and platforms for Tehran's regional ambitions? Who will run Iraq and Syria once the Islamic State terror group is ousted from Mosul and Raqqa?
The three countries share deep religious and cultural ties, but the power of Iran now in Syria and Iraq comes with the presence of tens of thousands of Shi'ite militiamen linked to Tehran and trained and commanded by Quds Force generals and Soleimani, who reports, reputedly, directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is thanks to Shi'ite militias and Iranian combat troops as much as to Russian airpower that battlefield fortunes have shifted in Syria to favor Assad, military observers say.
Since January 2013, more than 1,000 members of the Quds Force or other IRGC units have been killed fighting in Syria — most of them Pakistani Shi'ites recruited with the lure of Iranian citizenship and cash. Several IRGC generals have died in Syria, including Hassan Shateri, a veteran of Iran's covert wars in the Middle East, whose 2013 funeral at Amir al-Momenin Mosque in Tehran was attended by Soleimani.
Some analysts estimate that about 10,000 Iranian combat troops are in Syria, as well as thousands of fighters from Lebanon's Tehran-affiliated Shi'ite militia, Hezbollah.
As the United States and Iran jostle for influence in the Levant, Iran's growing power in Syria and Iraq is causing unease in Western capitals.
"The extent of lasting Iranian influence seems to be of special concern," analyst Sam Heller noted in a recent roundtable discussion on Syria's future by scholars at the Century Foundation, a U.S.-based research organization.
Resentment in Syria, Iraq
There's alarm even among some government loyalists in Damascus and Baghdad who chafe at Iranian clout. In the summer of 2015 in Syria, there were reports of resentment among some of Assad's Syrian commanders at the influence of Quds Force generals.
FILE - Volunteers train at military base in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, June 17, 2014.
In Iraq, Shi'ite militias not under control of Tehran but loyal to Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani have bristled at talk of Najaf, considered the third-holiest shrine by Shi'ite Muslims, eventually coming under Iranian sway. In the meantime, Tehran-loyal militias have branched out and extended their control of more Iraqi territory.
Last month, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the largest militias professing allegiance to Khamenei, moved its headquarters into a palace built by Saddam Hussein in a Sunni-majority neighborhood of the Iraqi capital.
Otherwise, the Quds Force-linked Shi'ite militias have been careful to observe the overall direction of Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, about the conduct of the battle against IS and have remained outside Mosul, allowing Iraq's regular security forces to battle inside the mainly Sunni city.
And they have avoided clashing with the 5,000 or so American troops now stationed in Iraq or the U.S.-backed Kurdish peshmerga forces. There were fears that following the U.S. cruise missile strike this month on a Syrian government airfield, Iran may have ordered Shi'ite militiamen in Iraq to retaliate.
In the longer term, though, it is unclear whether Tehran will accept a continued American military presence in Iraq — one the Iraqi prime minister said on a recent visit to Washington he would like to see.
FILE - Members of the mainly Shi'ite Hashid Shaabi militia hold a portrait of Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani during a demonstration to show support for Yemen's Shi'ite Houthis and in protest of an air campaign in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition, in Baghdad, March 31, 2015.
Wider Shi'ite role
In March, Hashim al-Musawi, spokesman for the Iran-controlled militia known as the Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq (al-Nojaba), indicated at a news conference in Tehran that his and other Iranian-affiliated Iraqi Shi'ite militias wanted to take on a more expansive role in the region once the Sunni IS militants were defeated.
He mentioned taking military action against Turkish forces based near Mosul if they didn't withdraw, and forming a brigade on the Golan Heights, controlled by the Assad government, as a means to strike at Israel. IRGC units already are thought to be stationed on the Golan Heights.
At a joint news conference April 5 in Washington with Jordan's King Abdullah, President Donald Trump was asked what he thought about the Iran-loyal militias when it comes to Syria and their support in propping up Syria's Assad.
"Will you go after them?" he was asked. "You will see," he replied. "They will have a message. You will see what message that will be."
But according to Ranj Alaaldin, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center and author of a forthcoming book on Shi'ite militias in Iraq and Syria, Iran and its proxies "dominate realities on the ground."
"Iranian influence cannot be eliminated," he argued, it can only be contained.