Lebanese Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militias after Soleimani’s death |
BEIRUT – Shortly after the death of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq, the Tehran-backed Lebanese organization Hezbollah urgently met with Iraqi militia leaders, seeking to Unite them in the face of a huge void left by their powerful mentor. dead, according to two sources.
The meetings aimed to coordinate the political efforts of the often resistant Iraqi militias, who lost not only Soleimani but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a rallying Iraqi paramilitary commander, in the January 3 attack on Baghdad airport, reported indicated the sources.
While offering few details, two other sources from a pro-Iran regional alliance confirmed that Hezbollah, which is sanctioned as a terrorist group by the United States, intervened to help fill the void left by Soleimani in guiding the militias.
All sources in this article spoke on condition of anonymity to address sensitive political activities rarely discussed in public. Iraqi and Iranian government officials did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a militia representative.
The talks shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control in the volatile Middle East, particularly in the wake of the US attack on Soleimani and al-Muhandis.
Tehran-backed militias are central to Iran’s efforts to maintain control of Iraq, where the United States maintains some 5,000 troops. Iraq has experienced years of civil war since US forces overthrew Saddam Hussein, and more recently the government – and militias – have faced growing protests against Iran’s influence in the country. Iran helped establish Iraqi militia groups.
In the months leading up to his death, Soleimani had sunk deeper into the Iraqi crisis, encountering Iraqi militias in Baghdad as Tehran sought to defend its allies and interests in its power struggle with the United States, one of the Iraqi sources said.
Hezbollah’s involvement marks an expansion of its role in the region. The Shiite group, founded by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1982, has been at the heart of Iran’s aggressive regional strategy for years, helping Soleimani to form paramilitary groups in Iraq and Syria.
A pro-Iranian regional official said Hezbollah’s leadership of the militias would continue until the new leadership of the al-Quds Force (an IRGC unit led by Soleimani since 1998) brought the political crisis in Iraq under control.
Meetings between Hezbollah and Iraqi militia leaders began in January, days after Soleimani’s assassination, 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 Muhammad al-Kawtharani, the Hezbollah representative in Iraq who has worked closely with Soleimani for years to guide Iraqi militias, hosted the meetings, Iraqi sources said.
Kawtharani picked up where Soleimani left off, Iraqi sources said. Sources said Kawtharani berated the groups, as Soleimani did in one of his last meetings with them, for failing to develop a unified plan to contain popular protests against the Baghdad government and paramilitaries. that dominate it. The government and militias killed hundreds of protesters but failed to contain the rebellion.
Kawtharani called for a united front in choosing a new Iraqi prime minister, Iraqi sources said. Former Iraqi communications minister Mohammed Allawi has since been appointed – a development hailed by Iran and accepted by parties linked to the militias he supports but opposed by protesters.
Kawtharani is considered the most suitable figure to lead Iraqi militias until a permanent Iranian successor can be chosen, although he nowhere possesses Soleimani’s influence and charisma, the two sources said. Iraqi women and a senior Iraqi Shiite Muslim official.
“Kawtharani has ties to the militias,” said the Shiite leader, noting that he was born in Najaf, has lived in Iraq for decades and speaks the Iraqi dialect. “He had the confidence of Soleimani, who depended on and called on him to help him in crises and meetings in Baghdad.”
One of the Iraqi sources close to the militias said Kawtharani also met with Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful but unpredictable figure, to convince him to support the new Iraqi prime minister. Al-Sadr gave his support to Allawi.
Kawtharani will face serious, perhaps insurmountable, challenges to replace the leaders killed in the drone attack, Iraqi sources close to the militias said.
“Many faction leaders consider themselves 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 it will continue and the Iranians know it.”
One of the pro-Iranian sources, a military commander, said Hezbollah’s involvement would consist of political guidance but would not provide manpower and materials to respond to Soleimani’s murder. “The militias do not need Hezbollah’s intervention because they have strength in numbers, combat experience and firepower,” the commander said.
These groups are difficult to control as Hezbollah is seen as more disciplined but, like the rest of the Iranian network, Hezbollah is in danger of stretching, a senior US official in the region and an Iraqi political leader said.
In recent years, Hezbollah’s role has grown considerably. He fought to support Syrian President Bashar Assad and extended his political support to Yemen’s Houthis, allied with Iran, in their war against a Saudi-led military alliance.
Iran will likely rely in part on the influence of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, a figure who wields influence among Iran’s allies in the region, the US official said. Nasrallah is seen as overseeing Kawtharani’s efforts, a senior Iraqi Shiite leader said.
“I think that ideologically, religiously, he is considered a charismatic figure by many Iraqi Shiite militias,” said the US official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak officially.
In two lengthy televised addresses, Nasrallah paid tribute to Soleimani and vowed to avenge his death. He also said the goal of Hezbollah and its allies was to expel US forces from the region. US forces have been in Iraq since 2014 as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State.
If the Iraqi militias are successful, according to sources close to them, these troops would be the first to leave.