Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah is ramping up its efforts in Iraq and is shaping the Iran-led axis’ activities in the country. Where Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi militias have cooperated for nearly two decades, coordination has increased over the last year in the wake of the deaths of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
The collaboration between Hezbollah and Iraqi pro-Iran militias is a key component of the strategy of the Iran-led axis that pursues destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East, and after losing Soleimani and al-Mohandes, Iran and Hezbollah have sought to preserve the damaged and shell-shocked nexus.
The increased coordination is part of a propaganda campaign to show the Iran-led axis’ opponents that the axis is retaliating after the deaths of two of their top leaders. Their coordination has manifested itself in their vengeance toward Iraqi protesters and activists and threats to opposing politicians. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kadhimi’s recent efforts to curb pro-Iran malign actions are inadequate. While he has appointed independent figures in some key positions in the government to meet these ends, more must be done.
While Hezbollah has sympathizers among some Shia factions in Iraq, their presence is not welcomed by all Iraqi political factions, and certainly not by all Iraqis. And where Iraqi pro-Iran militias are continuing their malign activities, Lebanese and Iraqi protesters’ resentment is mounting against the militias.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Iraq post Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes
When Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Soleimani and al-Mohandes were killed, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said that soon “Iraqi resistance groups” would soon respond, one sign of increasing cooperation. Nasrallah’s comment underlines Hezbollah’s support for retaliation against the killings.
In another moment of increasing cooperation, after the assassinations, reports indicated that Mohammad al-Kawtharani, Hezbollah’s representative in Iraq, temporarily led fractious pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias to unite them until a new IRGC-QF commander was appointed.
Al-Kawtharani, who was designated as a global terrorist in 2013 by the US, coordinated with Iraqi Shia militia leaders and violently suppressed Iraqi protesters, attacked foreign diplomatic entities, including the US embassy and forces, according to Reuters.
However, a source told the Middle East Institute that Hezbollah’s role in Iraq during the aftermath of the killing was exacerbated.
It is possible that the loss of the “axis of resistance” architect Soleimani and the accompanying dramatic shock it set off in the region has led Hezbollah and other actors such as pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias to show their solidarity and continue to collaborate, at least rhetorically.
History of coordination
While cooperation between the Lebanese and Iraqi groups has grown over the last year, initial cooperation dates back nearly two decades.
In the mid 2000s, Hezbollah trained Iraqi Shia fighters in Lebanon and in Iraq, including a couple thousand fighters from the Mahdi Army, an armed group formed in 2003 and loyal to Iraqi cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr. The group carried out attacks against the US-led coalition, and while it was disbanded, it has remobilized under the name Saraya al-Salam. Simultaneously, Iran requested Hezbollah’s presence in Iraq, and thus Nasrallah created a clandestine unit to train and advise Iraqi Shia militias.
Al-Kawtharani has also coordinated military and intelligence cooperation between pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias and Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, according to US-based news outlet al-Hurra. Al-Kawtharani planned the attacks against the Karbala Joint Provisional Coordination Centre in Iraq in January 2007 that killed five US soldiers.
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The Syrian civil war has also been a catalyst for reinvigorated Hezbollah and pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militia coordination as some forces and operatives moved to Syria to further support the Iran-led axis. Over the last few years, reports have indicated that under the supervision of the IRGC-QF, Iraqi Shia fighters travelled from Iraq to Lebanon for training in camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon’s east and in the south of the country before going to the battlefields in Syria. Some of them integrated within Hezbollah in Lebanon after discussion between Iraqi Shia militia leaders and Hezbollah, Asharq al-Awsat reported.
While militia members in Iraq outnumber Hezbollah’s fighting ranks, the Lebanon-based group provides training, expertise, advice, logistical support and some equipment. Pro-Iran Shia militias such as A’saib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba follow the first Supreme Leader of Iran Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine and have a strategic relationship with and mimic the model of Hezbollah in terms of propaganda and state domination from within.
In January 2018, al-Mohandes publicly announced that Iran and Hezbollah helped in the formation of Iraqi Shia militias in Iraq. In a YouTube video uploaded by Kata’ib Hezbollah’s supporters, al-Mohandes says, “Hassan Nasrallah is a leader of resistance … he is our leader too … he is motivating us.” When Iraqi militia leaders, including al-Mohandes visited Iraq, they did not shy away from openly supporting Nasrallah.
Iraq’s A’saib Ahl al-Haq has an office in Beirut and some fighters joined ranks alongside Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel. Further, they have collaborated in Syria to support the Syrian regime.
Financially, Hezbollah’s has sent money to Iraq and has managed to gain access to and have benefit from Iraq’s economic and financial institutions, according to a hearing at the US Congress with a number of experts in 2017.
In southern Iraq, a string of businesses in partnership with Iran-backed militias have been accused of laundering money for Hezbollah.
In early 2020, al-Kawtharani informally asked Iraq for millions of dollars as aid to help Lebanon’s economic crisis. There is a deeper level of collaboration between Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militias that demonstrates the long term strategy which includes creating clients throughout the public and private sector and violently suppressing its opponents.
The collaboration between Hezbollah and pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq is essential for Iran’s Ayatollahs as it extends Iran’s security and economic leverage and activities across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The presence of militias ensures that Iran can create its long sought after land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. Hezbollah and Iraqi pro-Iran Shia militias are key pillars for Iran’s undisrupted land corridor, and both are crucial for Iran’s attempt at regional hegemony.
However, in Iraq, Hezbollah has not been welcomed by all, and Arab Sunnis, Arab Shia and Kurds and some circles of Iraqi and Kurdish politicians have pushed back against the group’s present. This opposition is an obstacle to Iran and Hezbollah’s ability to expand their influence in Iraq.
Additionally, protesters in Iraq and Lebanon have shown their discontent toward Hezbollah and pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias. The nexus between Hezbollah and pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias has limits as there are some efforts by the Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi backed by Iraqi protesters to push back against the increasing domination of Iranian proxies and clients in Iraq and to strengthen Iraqi identity.