The United States said Monday that Hizbullah was operating as an Iranian proxy in Iraq to arm Shi'ite militants and had played a role in a January sophisticated attack on US troops. The coordination highlights the growing Iranian presence in Iraq and its preparations for ensuring Shiite dominance should America withdraw, raising the stakes and complexity of US policymaking on Iraq.
Hizbullah's history in Iraq
US military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner announced Monday that senior Lebanese Hizbullah operative Ali Mussa Dakdouk had been captured March 20 in southern Iraq.
Dakdouk served for 24 years in Hizbullah and was "working in Iraq as a surrogate for the Iranian Quds Force," Bergner said.
The general also said that Dakdouk was a liaison between the Iranians and a breakaway Shi'ite group led by Qais al-Khazaali, a former spokesman for cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Bergner said Khazaali's group carried out the January attack against a provincial government building in Karbala and that the Iranians assisted in preparations. Khazaali and his brother Ali al-Khazaali were captured with Dakdouk.
Dakdouk told US interrogators that the Karbala attackers "could not have conducted this complex operation without the support and direction of the Quds force," Bergner said.
Marius Deeb, an expert on Hizbullah at Johns Hopkinsâ€š School of Advanced International Studies, said that Iran would see Islamic militant group as a valuable proxy in attacks on US soldiers because of the know-how it brings from its years of guerrilla warfare against Israel in Southern Lebanon, particularly using roadside bombs and remote-controlled explosives.
In addition, he said, the Iranians are looking to secure Shi'ite domination of Iraq and fend off the threat of the Sunnis in the event of a US withdrawal.
"Iran allowed Hizbullah in [to Iraq] and they might need it, because if the US leaves now, there's no guarantee that the Shi'ites will control the country," he said. "Having Hizbullah strengthens the Shi'ites." Deeb added that the current Shi'ite ambivalence about how soon they'd like to see American forces withdraw reflects concerns about the strength of the Sunnis right now, as well as a desire to see America "bleed" as much as possible in Iraq.
The US, he continued, is left in a precarious position where staying or leaving both carry considerable risks.
Deeb called the American reports of Hizbullah activity in Iran "credible" and "logical."
Bergen also referred to documents captured with Khazaali showing that the Quds Force had developed detailed information on the US position at the government building "regarding our soldiers' activities, shift changes and defenses, and this information was shared with the attackers." The Karbala attack was one of the boldest and most sophisticated against US forces in four years of fighting in Iraq, and US officials at the time suggested that Iran may have had a role in it. In the assault, up to a dozen gunmen posed as an American security team, with US military combat fatigues, allowing them to pass checkpoints into the government compound, where they launched the attack. One US soldier was killed in the initial assault, and the militants abducted four others who were later found shot to death.
The US military in the past has accused the Quds Force - the external arm of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards - of arming and financing Iraqi extremists to carry out attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Teheran has denied the US accusations.
Bergner said Iraqi extremists were taken to Iran in groups of 20 to 60 for training in three camps "not too far from Teheran." When they returned to Iraq, they formed units called "special groups" to carry out attacks, bombings and kidnappings.
"Our intelligence reveals that the senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity," he said. Asked if Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be unaware of the activity, Bergner said, "That would be hard to imagine." Dakdouk was "tasked to organize the special groups in ways that mirrored how Hizbullah was organized in Lebanon," the general said. Dakdouk was ordered by Hizbullah's leadership to work with the Quds Force and went to Iran in May 2006 to meet with Quds Force commanders, Bergner said. He then made four trips to Iraq over the next year.
Hizbullah, he said, helps the Iranians as a "proxy... to do things they didn't want to have to do themselves in terms of interacting with special groups," Bergner said. He added that Hizbullah did not appear to have an extensive network in Iraq, saying Dakdouk was "being used specifically as a proxy by the Quds Force.
AP contributed to this report.