Iran-backed Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militias after Qassem Soleimani’s death

BAGHDAD: Shortly after Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq, the Tehran-backed Lebanese organization Hezbollah met urgently with Iraqi militia leaders, seeking to unite them in the face of a huge void left by the death of their powerful mentor. , two sources with knowledge of the meetings told Reuters.

The meetings were aimed at coordinating the political efforts of the often fractious Iraqi militias, which lost not only Soleimani but also Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, a unifying Iraqi paramilitary commander, in the Jan. 3 attack at Baghdad airport. indicated the sources.

While offering few details, two additional sources from a pro-Iranian regional alliance confirmed that Hezbollah, which is sanctioned as a terrorist group by the United States, stepped in to help fill the void left by Soleimani by guiding the militias. All sources for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political activities rarely discussed in public. Representatives of the Iraqi governments and

Iran did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesman for the militias.

Iranian clerics are seen during the forty-day memorial, after the assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander-in-chief Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US airstrike at the airport from Baghdad. (Reuters)

The talks shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control in the volatile Middle East, especially in the wake of the devastating US attack on a revered Iranian military leader.

The Tehran-backed militias are key to Iran’s efforts to maintain control of Iraq, where the United States still maintains some 5,000 troops. The country has experienced years of civil war since US forces toppled Saddam Hussein, and more recently the government – and militias – have faced growing protests against Iran’s influence in the country. Iran helped found Iraqi militias.

In the months leading up to his death, Soleimani had become increasingly embroiled in the Iraq crisis, holding meetings with Iraqi militias in Baghdad as Tehran sought to defend its allies and interests in its power struggle with the United States, one of two Iraqi sources. mentioned.

Hezbollah’s involvement marks an expansion of its role in the region. The Shia group, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, has been central to Iran’s regional strategy for years, helping Soleimani train paramilitary groups in Iraq and Syria.

A pro-Iran regional official says Hezbollah’s leadership of the militias will continue until the new leadership of the Quds Force – a unit of the Revolutionary Guards headed by Soleimani since 1998 – gets the political crisis in Iraq under control .

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Meetings between Hezbollah and Iraqi militia leaders began in January, just days after Soleimani’s assassination, the two Iraqi sources said. Reuters could not confirm the number of meetings or where they took place. One source said they were in Beirut and the other said they were either in Lebanon or Iran.

Sheikh Mohammad Al-Kawtharani, the Hezbollah representative in Iraq who worked closely with Soleimani for years guiding Iraqi militias, organized the meetings, the Iraqi sources said.

Kawtharani picked up where Soleimani left off, Iraqi sources said. The sources said Kawtharani berated the groups, as Soleimani did in one of his last meetings with them, for not coming up with a unified plan to contain popular protests against the Baghdad government and paramilitaries. who dominate it. The government and militias killed hundreds of protesters but failed to contain the rebellion.

Kawatharani also called for a united front to choose a new Iraqi prime minister, the Iraqi sources said. Since then, Iraq’s former communications minister, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, has been appointed – a development hailed by Iran and accepted by parties linked to the militias it supports but opposed by protesters.

QUICKFACT

Death of Qassem Soleimani

A US airstrike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, 62, and six others after landing at Baghdad International Airport in January.

For now, Kawtharani is seen as the most suitable figure to lead Iraq’s militias until a permanent Iranian successor can be chosen, though he falls far short of Soleimani’s influence and charisma. , according to the two Iraqi sources and a senior Iraqi Shia Muslim official.

“Kawtharani has ties to militias,” the Shia leader said, noting that he was born in Najaf, lived in Iraq for decades and speaks Iraqi dialect. “He had the confidence of Soleimani, who depended on him and called on him to help him in crises and during meetings in Baghdad.”

One of the Iraqi sources close to the militias said that Kawtharani had also met with the populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, a powerful but unpredictable figure, to convince him to support the new Iraqi prime minister. As Reuters reported, Sadr gave his support to Allawi.

Kawtharani will face serious, possibly insurmountable, challenges to replace the leaders killed in the drone attack, Iraqi sources close to the militias told Reuters.

“Many of the faction leaders see themselves as too big and too important to take orders,” an Iraqi source said. “For now, because of pressure from Iran, they are cooperating with him, but I doubt that will continue and the Iranians know that.”

One of the pro-Iranian sources, a military commander, said Hezbollah’s involvement would consist of political guidance, but would stop short of providing manpower and materials to respond to Solemani’s killing. . The militias “don’t need Hezbollah’s intervention because they have the strength in numbers, the combat experience and the firepower”, the commander said.


An Iranian cleric is seen during the forty-day memorial, after the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander-in-chief Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US airstrike at the airport in Baghdad. (Reuters)

These groups are difficult to control while Hezbollah is considered more disciplined. But like the rest of the Iranian network, Hezbollah risks stretching, said a senior US official in the region and an Iraqi political leader.

In recent years, the role of Hezbollah has increased considerably. He fought in support of President Bashar Assad in Syria and gave political support to the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen in their war against a Saudi-led military alliance.

Iran will likely rely in part on the influence of Nasrallah, a figure who commands deep respect among Iran’s allies in the region, the US official said. Nasrallah is seen as overseeing Kawtharani’s efforts, according to a senior Iraqi Shiite leader.

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READ MORE: Arab News Spotlight – Death of Qassem Soleimani

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“I think ideologically and religiously he is seen as a charismatic figure by many Iraqi Shia militias,” the US official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

In two lengthy televised addresses, Nasrallah paid tribute to Soleimani and vowed to avenge his death.

He also said that one of the goals of Hezbollah and its allies was to eject US forces from the region once and for all. US forces have been in Iraq since 2014 as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State.

If the Iraqi militias have their way, according to sources close to them, these troops will be the first to leave.

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