Hizbullah's history in Iraq

The claim about Hizbullah's role in training Shi'ite militias in Iran's service could be part of the Bush administration's campaign to increase the pressure on Teheran.

hizbullah flag 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
hizbullah flag 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
US Brig.-Gen. Kevin Bergner said Monday that a senior Hizbullah operative, Ali Mussa Dakdouk, was captured on March 20 in southern Iraq. He said Dakdouk served for 24 years in Hizbullah and was working in Iraq as a "surrogate" for Iran's Quds Force. The US military is accusing Iran of using Hizbullah as a "proxy" to arm Shi'ite terrorists in Iraq. This is the first time US military authorities in Iraq have presented concrete evidence of Hizbullah's direct involvement in the Shi'a violence against the US coalition forces in connivance with Iran. However, since the US army occupied Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein's regime, Hizbullah has been in the background as a possible troublemaker, in line with its anti-American, anti-Western ideology and strategy and based on its historical ties to radical Shi'a movements in Iraq. One little-known fact regarding Hizbullah is that members of the Lebanese branch of the Islamic Da'wa Party, an Iraqi organization, were among the group's founders in 1982, along with the Lebanese Islamic Amal movement and a group of radical clerics with roots in the Shi'a holy city of Najaf, Iraq. Many of the terrorist operations against Gulf states during the 1980s were perpetrated by Hizbullah cells or by local Shi'a groups that had received Hizbullah training or support. The Iraqi Islamic Da'wa Party was involved in several of these operations. After the end of the 2003 war in Iraq, Hizbullah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qasim addressed the question of whether Hizbullah itself would play any role in the Iraqi resistance. Qasim claimed that the organization would not interfere in "internal Iraqi affairs." Yet, when pressed to comment about what Hizbullah would do if the situation in Iraq "develops into something that looks like an intifada," he replied, "Let us wait and see the developments first, for we do not know what the circumstances will be." Soon after the war, Nasrallah offered a more detailed explanation, claiming that Hizbullah would consider joining an Iraqi insurgency against US forces, but that it was a matter first for the Iraqi people to decide. . . . "All Arabs, Muslims and honorable people in the world should support a people that decides to resist the occupation. Hizbullah is part of the Arabs and Muslims." At the same time, he qualified these remarks by asserting that Hizbullah "should not be expected to take action for which it was not armed or prepared." Interestingly, statements of this nature reflect the same strategy that Hizbullah has used in the framework of its terrorist and military activity against Israel: leaving the enemy in the dark about its real intentions while hinting to its constituency that it intends to strike at the right moment. In any case, Hizbullah's actual connections to the Iraqi opposition have been evident since early in the war. In late March 2003, the Oman daily al-Watan claimed that the Shi'a opposition in Iraq included "the newly formed Iraqi Hizbullah, whose emergence has raised questions about its links with its Lebanese counterpart," which itself "has become increasingly involved in the Iraqi issue." In June, the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, whose sympathies in Iraq lie mainly with the Sunni opposition, reported that Hizbullah had initiated secret contacts with supporters in Iraq to form a group that would serve as the organization's arm in Iraq. In August, a new Iraqi jihadist group, Hadithah Mujahedin, vowed attacks on US forces and called on the "brother mujahedin in Palestine and Lebanon" to "derive lessons of jihad . . . from the mujahedin of Hizbullah in sisterly Lebanon." By November 2003, Hizbullah had reportedly "established a significant presence in Iraq," including a security team of up to 90 members. According to Bush administration officials, the intent of this presence was unclear. Because Hizbullah members did not immediately participate in attacks on US forces in Iraq, administration officials speculated that the organization's goal could be "to help the Iraqis politically" or to act as a deterrent in case Washington attempted to unleash the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group, against the Teheran regime. Given Hizbullah's history, it is difficult to view its current role in Iraq as merely "political"; rather, the organization was just waiting for the right moment to strike. During a May 2004 solidarity march in Beirut staged by Hizbullah "in defense of the holy places in Iraq," Nasrallah declared: "We will remain present in this confrontation, defending Lebanon, defending Syria when it is targeted, supporting our brothers in Palestine, backing our brothers in Iraq, standing on the side of Iran as much as our capabilities allow us." Nasrallah explained at the end of his speech that the slogan "We respond to your call, O Husayn" means constant readiness and willingness for martyrdom. In November 2006 American intelligence sources stated that the Lebanese Hizbullah had been training members of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shi'ite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr. Some 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite militias had been trained by Hizbullah in Lebanon. A small number of Hizbullah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said. The militia members had learned about weapons, bomb-making, intelligence and assassinations. The Hizbullah training had been conducted with Sadr's knowledge. Iran has facilitated the link between Hizbullah and the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, the US official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate about whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria. During the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, a mid-level Mahdi commander claimed his militia had sent 300 fighters to Lebanon, "the best-trained fighters in the Mahdi Army," called the Ali al-Hadi Brigade, to fight alongside Hizbullah. According to an American intelligence official, the Mahdi Army and other militia fighters traveled to Lebanon in groups of 15 and 20. Some were present during the fighting between Hizbullah and Israel, though there was no indication they had taken part in the conflict. The present claim about Hizbullah's role in training Shi'ite militias in the service of Iran and in inflicting casualties to US and British forces in Iraq could be part of the Bush administration's campaign to increase the pressure on the Teheran regime regarding its negative role in Iraq and also in preparation of harsher sanctions concerning its nuclear project. The writer is a Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.