The photo-based social media application Instagram appeared to shut down an account tied to Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani on Wednesday, hours after the account posted photos of the general in Fallujah, Iraq. The account is once again functional, after Iranian state media published a tirade condemning Instagram for allowing Sunni terrorists to use its site.
The Associated Press and The Times of Israel note that the account, under the name @ghasem.soleimani, was unavailable for most of Wednesday. Instagram did not respond to the AP’s request for comment, and the account was visible on Wednesday and maintained its 325,000 follower count. The account posts photos of Soleimani, the head of an Iranian military unit known for conducting illicit operations and working with terror groups like Hezbollah, as well as quotes from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani is a U.S.-designated terrorist with close ties to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Vladimir Putin in Russia. He is believed to have visited Russia within the past year, violating United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted as part of the P5+1 nuclear deal passed last year.
The Fars News Agency, an Iranian state outlet, published a report Wednesday condemning Instagram for being a friendly venue to Sunni terrorists, but shutting down Soleimani’s account. Fars appears to treat the account as if it belongs officially to Soleimani and is not a fan page. (Multiple Soleimani fan pages are on Instagram, as well). “Instagram, Twitter and other tech companies claim that they have long policed their content for signs of extremism, but thousands of terrorist and extremist groups are operating on these social media networks,” Fars alleges, protesting that Soleimani has developed a strong fanbase among Sunni Muslims and heralding him as “the leader of the war on terrorism.”
“The large number of tweets and posts to hail the Iranian General has astonished many political analysts and critics in the Arab world,” Fars claims, advertising a new account for Soleimani.
It is unclear what will happen with the new Soleimani account, as the old one has resurfaced. A photo tagged with the location “Fallujah, Iraq” appeared on the site 18 hours ago at press time.
Another photo, without location but depicting Soleimani looking at battle plans in what appears to be a desert area, was uploaded with the date stamp “May 26, 2016, 1:57 AM.”
Fars News broke the story of Soleimani conducting operations against the Islamic State in Fallujah, Iraq, on Wednesday, posting photos of the general in what appeared to be a war room meeting. According to a report in The Long War Journal, Soleimani is in Iraq “helping direct operations for the plethora of Iranian-backed militias taking part in the fighting.”
Earlier this week, the Iraqi government announced a military push to take over Fallujah, the first city to fall to the Islamic State in 2014. Reports from the few who have managed to escape the city suggest that the Islamic State is attempting to use civilians there as human shields, preventing them from leaving. The city is rapidly running out of its food supply as the Islamic State is preventing anyone from entering the city, as well. On the outskirts of Fallujah, civilians say the Islamic State presence has dwindled significantly, as the jihadis try to fortify the city itself. The Telegraph estimates that 50,000 civilians are currently living in Fallujah.
Soleimani’s participation in the operation to retake Fallujah is a sign that the Iraqi government understands the growing threat of Shiite unrest in the country. Earlier this month, Shiite protesters stormed the Iraqi Parliament on the orders of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and are planning a new similar protest this week. “I call upon our youth to postpone their protest tomorrow, because our security forces are busy fighting in Fallujah,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi implored on Thursday. His call to postpone protests was carried by Iranian state media PressTV, a sign that the Iranian government is supporting Baghdad as its influence expands in the region.
Iran already operates dozens of Shiite militias in Iraq, who are fighting the Islamic State but have clearly stated their primary enemy is the United States. “We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq. Any such American force will become a primary target for our group. We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting,” a militia leader said in December, warning the United States not to fight ISIS in Iraq.
“If the U.S. administration doesn’t withdraw its forces immediately, we will deal with them as forces of occupation,” the head of another Shiite militia warned.
Soleimani has made clear his intention of using his position as general to diminish American influence abroad. In a recent speech, Soleimani lamented the success the U.S. military has had in fighting terrorists in the Middle East:
Today, we are witnessing that the Americans have the largest volume of presence and attention to the region and in the current conditions, the highest number of the US political and security institutions are stationed in the region. The highest number of the US armed forces, equipment and weapons are in this region and the US diplomats make the most visits and the highest number of countries dependent on the West are in this region and we should realize its reason. … Therefore, they seek collapse of the Islamic Revolution.