Iran-backed militias risk dragging Iraq deeper into regional conflicts
LONDON - Iraq’s Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigades militia has vowed “a direct conflict” with Israel and the United States after an unclaimed air strike killed 22 of its fighters in Syria, a development that is likely to escalate regional tensions.
“This crime and this blood will open a direct conflict with that entity (Israel). We will not accept US presence and will not allow Iraq to become American,” Hezbollah Brigades spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini told Iran’s al-Alam satellite television.
The US-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) denied carrying out air strikes in the Syrian town of al-Harra near the Iraqi border. An unidentified US official speaking to Agence France-Presse, however, implicated Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had vowed to take action against “military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria.”
The Hezbollah Brigades, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, is part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces. It has claimed it is on the Syrian border to fight ISIS.
“Our presence in the border between Iraq and Syria, in particular, is to chase and terminate ISIS remnants in order to secure the Iraqi border. This has upset America and its illegitimate Zionist entity, as well as their agents in the region because they are keen on preserving ISIS and its sister groups,” Hezbollah Brigades said in a statement.
The Shia militia group, however, has long been involved in the Syrian civil war, supporting the Assad regime in military operations that were not directed against ISIS. It uses the term “sister groups” to refer to all rebels opposed to the Assad regime.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi prohibited militiamen from taking part in the Syrian civil war but the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, whose top diplomat, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, often takes pro-Tehran stances, insisted that Hezbollah Brigades was in the border area as part of anti-ISIS efforts.
Iraqi Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki, another pro-Iran politician, said the militia was on the Iraqi side of the border, contrary to what had been reported. “The strike targeted the martyred mujahideen while they were on Iraqi territories, not Syrian territories,” Maliki said during a funeral for the slain militiamen.
The dual role that the Hezbollah Brigades plays in Syria, however, is likely to undermine Iraqi and international efforts against ISIS.
Many Sunni Syrians view the Hezbollah Brigades as a sectarian militia group implicated in war crimes and, along with other Iranian proxies, among the primary reasons for their suffering.
The militia’s presence in Syria is likely to increase possibilities of it being a target — whether intentional or accidental — of US or Israeli air strikes, dragging Iraq further into its neighbour’s conflict.
The militia has released inflammatory statements against Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which could harm Iraq’s efforts to improve ties with its neighbours.
So far, Abadi has maintained a precarious balancing act to preserve good international and regional relations. That may be in jeopardy if Iraq’s next government gives a prominent role to militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, whose bloc won the second-most parliamentary seats in national elections and has struck an alliance with influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc won a plurality of seats.
Aside from the diplomatic front, the consequences of strengthening the hands of militia leaders are likely to have a destabilising effect, nationally.
Two days after the air strike in Syria, Hezbollah Brigades clashed with Iraqi police in Baghdad, rekindling fears that Iraq’s militias could behave as if they were above the law despite government attempts to rein them in.