Suleimani funeral: Arab allies show Iranian commander's operational skill

Shadowy Middle East figures show up in Tehran to mourn their Iranian patron

A secular enforcer for the Syrian regime and the leader of Hamas were among Iran’s Arab allies at Qassem Suleimani’s funeral in a testimony to his skill in amassing regional clients for Tehran.

Squabbling Shiite players from Iraq were also at Suleimani’s main funeral, which was held in Tehran on Monday for him and his right-hand Iraqi militiaman, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

It was presided over by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and choreographed to show unity between Iran’s Arab, and particularly Iraqi, clients and Tehran.

Suleimani's actual burial will take place on Tuesday in Karman, a city in south-eastern Iran, with Al Muhandis to be buried in the Iraqi town of Najaf on a date that has yet to be announced.

During his long reign as the head of Quds Force, Iran’s foreign operations division, Suleimani transformed the command into one of the powerful positions in Iran.

A US drone attack killed the two men last week after Al Muhandis picked up Suleimani from Baghdad airport.

In the 1980s, Al Muhandis escaped a death sentence in Kuwait for a botched bombing of the US embassy in Kuwait City, which killed five people, none of whom were American.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh speaks during the funeral prayer over the coffins of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Tehran, Iran January 6, 2020. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

At the funeral, broadcast live on pro-Iranian TV channels, Khamenei recited a prayer in front of their coffins. It was in Arabic, not Farsi, in a bid to establish or reinforce kinship with the Arab audience watching.

Suleimani was aware of the usefulness of psychological tools in keeping Iran’s diverse group of allies in line, despite their ideological differences, and suspicions of treachery among each other.

He played a major role in propping the Syrian regime, partly through his links with Hezbollah and other Shiite militias under his command. The militias participated in siege warfare and depopulation of Sunni regions of Syria in the past nine years since the revolt against President Bashar Al Assad.

Despite occasionally irking Russia, Suleimani expanded Iran’s influence among Syria’s security apparatus.

A top security lieutenant of Mr Al Assad, Ali Mamlouk, was at the funeral, making a rare public appearance.

He is in charge of overseeing the regime’s external clients, a role that declined after Hamas’s leadership left Syria in 2012 and moved mostly to Qatar.

Hamas, a Sunni group, found it unpalatable to maintain public support for Mr Al Assad as the regime was killing thousands of Sunni civilians in its response to the pro-democracy protest movement.

But Hamas kept its strong ties with Tehran and was represented at the funeral by its chief, Ismail Haniyeh. Hezbollah said it dispatched its deputy leader Naim Qassem to Iran to meet Suleimani’s family.

After offering his condolences, Mr Qassem told Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV channel that Suleimani “was not just for Iran, but for all the Islamic world”.

Suleimani had focused on Iraq in the months before his killing, prodding the country’s Shiite elite to coalesce to intensify the crackdown on the Iraqi uprising, killing hundreds of civilians in the process.

As Iran’s main player in Iraq, Suleimani adopted an approach similar to former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad’s tutelage of Lebanon, where Al Assad’s motto was “we are friends to all in Lebanon”.

Among Iraq’s Shiite figures, Suleimani cultivated broad ties and backed rivals who fought each other but all sought his favour.

In September, Suleimani met populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr in Iran. Mr Al Sadr was a younger rival of Mr Al Muhandis who proclaimed himself as “leader of the resistance” after the killing.

It was a rare instance when the meeting was made public, with Suleimani appearing together with Mr Al Sadr and Mr Khamenei in a picture released by Mr Khamenei’s office.

The image was a message to Mr Al Sadr’s rivals that he remained an important Iranian ally, although Iran trusted Mr Al Muhandis more. His support by Iran goes back to the late 1970s.

epa08099291 (FILE) - A handout photo made available by the Iranian Supreme Leader's office shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani (R), Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iraqi Shia cleric, politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr (C) during the Ashura mourning ceremony in Tehran, Iran, 10 September 2019 (reissued 03 January 2020). Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed on 03 January 2020 following a US airstrike at Baghdad's international airport. The attack comes amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington.  EPA/IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER'S OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Mr Al Sadr visited Suleimani’s home to pay his respects to the Iranian commander's family. But Mr Sadr was not at the Tehran funeral, where Ammar Al Hakim, a competitor from a rival family in Najaf, showed up.

Even Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the country’s highest Shiite authority, sent a condolence letter to Mr Khamenei.

Mr Al Sistani has opposed the crackdown on the uprising, a policy supported by Suleimani, with news reports suggesting he had partly overseen the killings of Iraqi demonstrators.

The letter, which exalted Suleimani’s “unique role” in fighting ISIS, said: “We are distressed by the news of the martyrdom of the great General Hajj Qassem Suleimani”.