Lebanese Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militias after Soleimani's death

The discussions shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control in the unstable Middle East.
Wednesday 12/02/2020
Protesters chant slogans as they walk past a pro-Hezbollah Brigades (militia that is part of the Hashed Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces) billboard during an anti-government demonstration, January 17. (AFP)
Protesters chant slogans as they walk past a pro-Hezbollah Brigades (militia that is part of the Hashed Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces) billboard during an anti-government demonstration, January 17. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Shortly after Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq, the Tehran-backed Lebanese organisation Hezbollah urgently met with Iraqi militia leaders, seeking to unite them in the face of a huge void left by their powerful mentor's death, two sources said.

The meetings were meant to coordinate the political efforts of Iraq's often-fractious militias, which lost not only Soleimani but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a unifying Iraqi paramilitary commander, in the January 3 attack at Baghdad airport, the sources said.

While offering few details, two other sources in a pro-Iran 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 in guiding the militias.

All sources for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to address sensitive political activities rarely addressed in public. Officials with the governments of Iraq and Iran did not respond to requests for comment nor did a representative for the militia groups.

The discussions shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control in the unstable Middle East, especially following the US attack on Soleimani and al-Muhandis.

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

In the months before his death, Soleimani had waded deeper into the Iraq crisis, 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 the Iraqi sources said.

Hezbollah's involvement marks an expansion of its role in the region. The Shia group, founded by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1982, has been at the heart of Iran's aggressive regional strategy for years, helping Soleimani train paramilitary groups in Iraq and Syria.

One pro-Iran regional official said Hezbollah's guidance of the militias would continue until the new leadership in al-Quds Force (an IRGC unit led by Soleimani since 1998) gets a handle on the political crisis in Iraq.

The meetings between Hezbollah and Iraqi militia leaders began in January, days after Soleimani's assassination, the Iraqi sources said. Reuters couldn't 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 worked closely with Soleimani for years to guide the Iraqi militias, hosted the meetings, the Iraqi sources said.

Kawtharani picked up where Soleimani left off, the Iraqi sources said. The sources said Kawtharani berated the groups, as Soleimani had done in one of his final meetings with them, for failing to come up with a unified plan to contain popular protests against the Baghdad government and the paramilitaries that dominate it. The government and militia groups have killed hundreds of protesters but have not contained the rebellion.

Kawtharani urged a united front in picking a new Iraqi prime minister, the Iraqi sources said. Since then, former Iraqi Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi has been named -- a development welcomed by Iran and accepted by the militia-linked parties it backs but opposed by protesters.

Kawtharani is seen as the most suitable figure to direct Iraqi militias until a permanent Iranian successor can be chosen, although he possesses nowhere near Soleimani's clout and charisma, the two Iraqi sources and a senior Iraqi Shia Muslim leader said.

"Kawtharani has connections with the militia groups," the Shia leader said, noting that he was born in Najaf, lived in Iraq for decades and speaks Iraqi dialect. "He was trusted by Soleimani, who used to depend and call on him to help him in crises and in meetings in Baghdad."

One of the Iraqi sources close to the militias said Kawtharani also met with the Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful but unpredictable figure, to convince him to support the new Iraqi prime minister. Al-Sadr has given Allawi his support.

Kawtharani will face serious, perhaps insurmountable challenges in filling the shoes of the leaders killed in the drone attack, the Iraqi sources close to the militias said.

"A lot of faction leaders see themselves as too big and important to take orders from," one Iraqi source said. "For now, because of pressure from Iran, they're cooperating with him, but I doubt that will continue and the Iranians know that."

One of the pro-Iran sources, a military commander, said Hezbollah's involvement would consist of political guidance but stop short of providing manpower and materiel to retaliate for the Soleimani killing. "The militias do not need Hezbollah's intervention because they have the strength in numbers, combat experience and firepower," the commander said.

Those groups are difficult to control while Hezbollah is seen as more disciplined but, like the rest of Iran's network, Hezbollah risks stretching itself thin, a senior US official in the region and an Iraqi political leader said.

In recent years, Hezbollah's role has grown considerably. It has fought in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and extended political support to the Iran-allied Houthis of Yemen in their war with a Saudi-led military alliance.

Iran is likely to rely partly on the clout of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, a figure who wields influence among Iran's allies across the region, the US official said. Nasrallah is seen as overseeing Kawtharani's efforts, a senior Shia Iraqi leader said.

"I think ideologically, religiously, he's seen as a charismatic figure to many of the Iraqi Shia militias," the US official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the record.

In two lengthy televised addresses, Nasrallah has paid homage to Soleimani and vowed to avenge his death. He also declared it a goal of Hezbollah and its allies to eject 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 have their way, sources close to them say, those troops would be the first to depart.