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.
When 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.
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.