In early July, hundreds of mourners gathered for the funeral of Kamal Shirkhani in Lavasan, a small town northeast of the Iranian capital Tehran. The crowd carried the coffin past posters which showed Shirkhani in the green uniform of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and identified him as a colonel.
Shirkhani did not die in a battle inside Iran. He was killed nearly a hundred miles away from the Iranian border in a mortar attack by the militants of the Islamic State “while carrying out his mission to defend” a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, according to a report on Basij Press, a news site affiliated with the Basij militia which is overseen by the Revolutionary Guards.
Shirkhani’s death deep inside Iraq shows that Iran has committed boots on the ground to defend Iraqi territory.
At least two other members of the Guards have also been killed in Iraq since mid-June, a clear sign that Shi’ite power Iran has ramped up its military presence in Iraq to counter the threat of Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that seized much of northern Iraq since June.
The Islamic State considers Shi’ites to be heretics deserving of death, and made a point of filming its fighters gunning down Shi’ite prisoners as it advanced. Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ites see it as an existential threat.
Senior Iranian officials have denied that any Revolutionary Guard fighters or commanders are inside Iraq. But there’s no doubt that prominent politicians and clerics in Iran have been rattled by the rapid gains of the Islamic State and the threat it poses, not only to the Iraqi government but to Iran itself.
In late June, a senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, said in a statement that waging jihad to defend all of Iraq, particularly holy shrines that are visited each year by millions of Shi’ite pilgrims, is “obligatory,” according to a report from the semi-official Fars News agency.
Samarra, a city on the Tigris north of Baghdad where Colonel Shirkhani was killed, is site of the first of those major Shi’ite shrines to land in the path of the Sunni fighters’ advance. Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite militia swiftly mobilised and have so far succeeded in defending it. The deaths of Shirkhani and two others is proof that Iranians were part of that successful response.
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