The Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group has joined Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in negotiations to select Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's replacement, according to the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
"Soleimani is in Baghdad to push for a particular candidate to succeed Abdul Mahdi," said an informed Iraqi source to Agence France Press. Hezbollah official Mohammad Kawtharani, who is responsible for the terrorist group's Iraqi file, has joined Soleimani and "is also playing a large role in persuading Shi'ite and Sunni political forces in this," according to the source.
Kawtharani was sanctioned by the United States in August 2013 for working "on behalf of Hezbollah's leadership to promote the group's interests in Iraq, including Hezbollah efforts to provide training, funding, political, and logistical support to Iraqi Shi'a insurgent groups," according to the US Department of Treasury's website. The Hezbollah official also helped recruit fighters for the Assad regime in Syria.
According to Al Arabiya, Soleimani came to Iraq last weekend as Abdul Mahdi tendered his resignation to the Iraqi parliament. The Quds Force commander also visited Baghdad in October to help advise the government on the crackdown on anti-government protests. During the October visit, Soleimani met with the militias of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and told them to support Mahdi.
On Tuesday, the Iranian consulate in Najaf was torched for the third time. Iranian consulates in the cities of Karbala and Najaf have been torched and Iraqi flags have been raised over both during the protests, which began in October.
Mahdi's decision to resign was made after Shi'ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a change of leadership on Friday, according to Al Arabiya.
Sistani said attacks on peaceful protesters were "forbidden," but also urged demonstrators to reject violence. Protesters "must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people," he said.
Mahdi called on the government to "act in the interests of Iraq and preserve the blood of its people, and avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos and devastation."
The Iraqi prime minister's resignation came exactly a month after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in the face of anti-government protests that spread throughout Lebanon due to a troubled economy. In both countries, talks are ongoing about the formation of new governments.
In both Lebanon and Iraq, protesters spoke out against Iranian influence in their countries. In Lebanon, Hezbollah supporters have clashed multiple times with protesters and in Iraq protesters have claimed that Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias have attacked demonstrators. On Thursday in the city of Najaf in Iraq, clashes between security forces and protesters broke out as protesters torched the Iranian consulate in the city.
Over 400 people have been killed in the protests that have spread throughout Iraq against the deterioration of living conditions and health services, government corruption, unemployment and Iranian interference in the country.
Reuters and Seth J. Frantzman contributed to this report.