Tehran-backed Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militias in Soleimani’s wake
(Reuters) – Shortly after the death of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq, the Lebanese organization backed by Tehran, Hezbollah, met urgently with Iraqi militia leaders, Seeking to unite them in the face of a huge void left by their powerful mentor’s death, two sources familiar with the meetings told Reuters.
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 additional sources within a pro-Iran regional alliance confirmed that Hezbollah, which is sanctioned as a terrorist group by the United States, has stepped in to help fill the void left by Soleimani 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 spokesman.
The talks shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control amid instability in the Middle East, especially in the wake of the devastating US attack on a revered Iranian military leader. .
Tehran-backed militias are essential 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 overthrew 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 sunk deeper and deeper into the Iraqi 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. noted.
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 at the heart of Iran’s regional strategy for years, helping Soleimani to form paramilitary groups in Iraq and Syria.
A pro-Iranian regional official said Hezbollah’s leadership of militias would continue until the new leadership of the Quds Force – a Revolutionary Guard unit led by Soleimani since 1998 – brought the political crisis in Iraq under control. .
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 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.
Kawatharani also called for a united front in choosing a new Iraqi prime minister, Iraqi sources said. Since then, former Iraqi 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.
LARGE SHOES TO FILL
For now, Kawtharani is considered the most suitable figure to lead the Iraqi militias until a permanent Iranian successor can be chosen, although he possesses a far cry from Soleimani’s influence and charisma, according to the two Iraqi sources and a senior Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader.
“Kawtharani has ties to the militias,” said the Shiite leader, stressing that he was born in Najaf, had lived in Iraq for decades and spoke the Iraqi dialect. âHe had the confidence of Soleimani, who depended on him 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 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 – perhaps insurmountable – challenges to replace the leaders killed in the drone attack, Iraqi sources close to the militias told Reuters.
âMany faction leaders consider themselves too big and important to take orders,â 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 Solemani’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 President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and gave his political support to the Iranian-allied Houthis of 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.
“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 that the goal of Hezbollah and its allies is to expel US forces from the region once and for all. US forces have been in Iraq since 2014 as part of a coalition fighting against Islamic State.
If the Iraqi militias are successful, sources close to them say, those troops will be the first to leave.