A gauge of Iran's hand in Iraq
New US charges that it is working with Hizbullah in Iraq.
ISTANBUL, Turkey; and BEIRUT, Lebanon
Iran on Wednesday denounced as "false and ridiculous claims" new US accusations that a Lebanese Hizbullah special operations chief arrested in Iraq was working against US troops on behalf of Iran's elite Qods Force.Skip to next paragraph
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Ali Musa Daqduq was arrested in March with two Iraqi brothers, who US officers claimed on Monday were training small cells of "militia extremists" as a "proxy" for Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iraq.
Analysts are debating the significance of the arrests, what they indicate about Iranian-Hizbullah ties and their scale in Iraq, and their impact on the broader US-Iran confrontation.
"We're really talking about [Hizbullah] instructors, tacticians, and technical experts who are able, with the Iranians, to work hand in hand [with Iraqis]," says Magnus Ranstorp, an expert at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm.
"This sort of technical expertise rests with half the key in Beirut and half the key in Iran," says Mr. Ranstorp, noting a "very small" Hizbullah presence in Iraq since 2003.
In Beirut, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia has not commented on the charges. The US claims Mr. Daqduq once "coordinated protection" for Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Writing on a private Middle East news list, one respected Iraqi source noted Wednesday that he was shown a photo of Daqduq after the March arrest, by a ranking Iraqi official, and "immediately recognized" a man he had seen during his meeting with the Hizbullah leader "years ago."
"In intelligence terms, [the arrest] has a limited shelf life that has already expired, because they will alter their operational security," says Ranstorp. But the arrest of such a ranking operative, as a "small piercing of [Hizbullah's] armor," is "probably more valuable [to the US] in the political sense."
US Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said in Baghdad Monday that Hizbullah leaders ordered Daqduq to Iran in 2005, where he met in 2006 with Qods Force commanders and was "tasked to organize the special groups in ways that mirrored how Hizbullah was organized in Lebanon."
The US general claimed further that Daqduq, who feigned being a deaf-mute for weeks to hide his Lebanese accent, and the two Iraqis arrested with him, said under interrogation that Hizbullah instructors trained 20 to 60 Iraqis at a time in three camps near Tehran, and that the Qods Force – a unit of the IRGC – funded these "special groups" with up to $3 million per month.
General Bergner also stated that the three had detailed Iranian "support and direction" of a sophisticated Jan. 20 attack on a US base at Karbala, in which English-speaking men wearing US military uniforms tricked guards into opening the gates. Five Americans were killed; the US says that it found a 22-page "in-depth planning and lessons learned" report during the arrest.
The new US charges, however, come amid others in recent months that many experts consider exaggerated, including an Iranian role in making armor-piercing roadside bombs. "There's been a clear attempt by the Americans over the past year to eliminate Hizbullah through war, diplomacy, and political means. It's very clear to me this is another attempt," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
Hizbullah, which was trained by Iran when it was founded in 1982, fought Israel to a standstill during a 34-day war last summer, reaffirming a prowess that resulted in the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after an 18-year occupation. The effectiveness of roadside bombs back then was a key to Hizbullah's success.
"Hizbullah doesn't have that many resources, and I don't think they can spread themselves at this time while rebuilding from last year's war," says Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb. "If they are going to spread themselves, it would more likely be with the Palestinians, given the situation in Gaza."