Shortly before his assassination in Baghdad, Iraqi expert Hisham al-Hashemi told his friends about a study that he was working on. Based on declassified documents from Iraq’s military intelligence, records of calls, and interviews with officers, al-Hashemi had stumbled on little known information: Lebanon’s Hezbollah was operating a money laundering cell in Iraq, with which the pro-Iran party funded its activities to the tune of $300 million a year. The party also helped fund other pro-Iran militias in Iraq.
Al-Hashemi profiled four people whom he thought were running Hezbollah’s network: Mohamed Kawtharani and his brother Adnan Hussein, Ali al-Momen, and Yasin Majid. The Kawtharani brothers are both dual Iraqi-Lebanese nationals who the US has designated as terrorists. In fact, Mohamad, a Hezbollah veteran, has a $10 million US bounty on his head, or for any information that might lead to his capture.
Al-Momen, whom al-Hashemi described as the captain of the network, is an Iraqi “tabaiyah” – an Iraqi national whose Nationality Certificate says that he has Iranian origins. In 1980, late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein rounded up all tabaiyah and deported them to the Iranian border. Al-Momen, who was 16 years old at the time, lived in Iran until a decade later, when he moved to Lebanon and started working for various Hezbollah media outlets. After the collapse of Saddam’s regime in 2003, al-Momen stayed in Beirut, and only moved to Baghdad in 2010.
The fourth operative in Hezbollah’s money laundering activities in Iraq, Majid, was once a member of the Islamic Daawa Party, but now manages a global commercial network that extends from East Asia to Scandinavia, and includes Central Asian and Arab countries.
Hezbollah’s network embezzled public funds from the Iraqi ministries of agriculture, industry, migration and the displaced, transportation, and communication. Hezbollah also kidnaps members of wealthy Shia and Sunni families for ransom, and siphons oil off official Iraqi meters. The network trades in junk metal, from the vast debris from Iraq’s many wars.
Al-Hashemi said that Hezbollah — together with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the pro-Iran militias in Iraq — uses the laundered money to fund “terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.” The murdered Iraqi expert also said that, because Hezbollah is legal in Iraq, it maintains accounts in several Iraqi banks, and uses the Iraqi financial system as its gateway to the world.
Iran has created a global terrorism network to project influence, hunt down Iranian opposition worldwide, and blackmail the US and the West. But that’s not all. When in distress because of global or US sanctions, Tehran has found in the countries where its militias operate an alternative through which it can circumvent sanctions. Iran has also found it beneficial to have its militias — especially the most loyal ones like Lebanon’s Hezbollah — financially self-sufficient.
Al-Hashimi, who was well connected and aware of the content of the strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington, knew that the Americans were going after financial networks working for Iran in Iraq. Al-Hashemi was also an Iraqi nationalist who saw Iran and its influence in Iraq as a net negative.
Al-Hashemi was not alone in his nationalism. Shia religious leaders in Najaf have similarly expressed their dismay with Iran and its militias, with Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani withdrawing his limited support for and tacitly criticizing pro-Iranian militias.
Many of the militias boast of defeating ISIS, but now that the terrorist organization is nearly decimated, the militias are not winding down. On the contrary, the pro-Iran militias have been flourishing with a redefined purpose. Media reports quoted the Iranian Ambassador in Baghdad Airj Masjidi as saying that these militias “counter any attempts to distance Iran from Iraq.” Masjidi was clear. The militias are nothing but pawns of the Iranian regime inside Iraq.
The religious Shia leadership reflects a general Iraqi Shia mood that has turned against Iran and its militias. That was why, after so many failed attempts to install yet another pro-Tehran prime minister, Iran had to concede and let Iraqi nationalists choose one. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi thus won the job, and has since been trying to rid Iraq of Iran’s militias.
Part of al-Kadhimi’s plan is to go after Iranian money laundering networks inside Iraq. Doing so was is only to leave the militias to dry, but also to regain international trust in the Iraqi financial system and avoid a Lebanon style economic collapse.
Al-Hashemi therefore played an instrumental role in connecting the dots and shining the light on Hezbollah’s and Iranian illicit financial activities that undermine Iraq’s sovereignty, and its economy. For doing so, al-Hashemi paid with his life.