DUBAI (Reuters) - An Iranian commander has confirmed the presence in Iraq of the influential chief of Iran's Quds Force, an overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards, saying Qassem Soleimani was fighting the Islamic State militant group, official media reported.
The statement by General Amir Ali Hajizadeh appears to be the first confirmation by a named Guards official of the presence in Iraq of Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran, and of his involvement in efforts to counter the Sunni Muslim group.
"If Iran hadn't helped, Da'esh would have taken over Kurdistan," Hajizadeh, who runs the Guards' aerospace division, told Iranian state television, referring to the ultra hardline group by its widely used Arabic acronym.
"Our great commander, General Soleimani stopped the advance of Daesh with 70 people and they were not able to enter Arbil," he said, referring to the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Iranian leaders, with ties both to the Iraqi government and to a number of Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim militias, to date have said they would help defend Shi'ite shrines in Iraq if necessary, but have also said Iraqis are capable of doing that job themselves.
Regional experts believe the Guards have increased the supply of weapons and funds to proxy militant groups inside Iraq in recent weeks.
The 125,000-strong Guards force has a military budget that is believed to dwarf that of the regular armed forces. Much of its clout comes from posts held by former members in cabinet, parliament, provincial governorates and on Khamenei's staff.
Quds Force is a Guards branch tasked with operations outside Iran, frequently involving proxy armed groups.
The Islamic State considers Shi'ites to be heretics deserving 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.
Reporting By Michelle Moghtader, Editing by William Maclean and Dominic Evans