Why Hezbollah is playing a smaller role in this Iraqi conflict

The Lebanese militant organization is sending a small unit to assist Iran, its sponsor, in training Iraqi Shiite militia. Fighting in Syria and spillover onto Lebanese soil take priority for now.

By , Correspondent

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    Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen during a memorial service in Beirut, June 6, 2014. Hezbollah is sending a small unit of fighters to Iraq to assist Shiite resistance to Sunni jihadis.
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Hezbollah has dispatched a team of around 250 military advisors to help Iraqi Shiites fight back against the extremist Islamic State (IS) and other Sunni forces, according to sources close to the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group.

The deployment of the team comes as Hezbollah continues to battle Syrian rebel groups both in Syria and lately inside Lebanon, on its eastern frontier, underlining just how interwoven the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have become. 

Hezbollah is aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, via its Iranian sponsors, with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. On Tuesday, Iraq's parliament elected a new speaker, Salim al-Juburi, a move that may pave the way for the formation of a new Iraqi government after weeks of inaction. 

Recommended: How much do you know about US-Iraq relations? Take our quiz.

However, Hezbollah’s battlefield commitment to defending the Syrian regime – and the abundance of Shiite militia volunteers in Iraq – suggest that the Lebanese group will not send combatants to the Iraqi theater. 

“My sense is that the Iranians and by extension Hezbollah feel they have enough Iraqi manpower on the ground to fight IS,” says Randa Slim, a director at the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute.

In Syria, Hezbollah has been compelled to send more fighters to fill the gap left by Iraqi paramilitary fighters who returned home in early June to battle IS, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Before the latest Iraqi crisis, Hezbollah had an estimated 5,000 fighters serving in Syria at any one time. Its support has enabled Syria's regime to retake strategic areas such as the Qalamoun area north of Damascus. 

However, the spillover from the Syrian war has unsettled Lebanon. 

Hezbollah is also presently engaged in fierce clashes in mountainous territory on the Lebanese side of the eastern border with Syria, near the town of Arsal. Its fighters are battling to dislodge some 3,000 to 4,000 Syrian rebels who are holed up there. The rebels have been using the remote area inside Lebanon as a staging post to mount attacks against the Syrian Army and Hezbollah in the Qalamoun area. At least 10 Hezbollah fighters are believed to have been killed in the area in recent days. 

Reconnaissance role

Hezbollah’s 250-strong unit in Iraq will be responsible for advising, training, and coordinating the Iraqi Shiite militias under the aegis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Hezbollah-connected sources said that the unit in Iraq has been engaged in reconnaissance and intelligence work on IS, trying build up a picture of its military strength, its areas of deployment, and the durability of its alliances with other Iraqi Sunni groups opposed to the Shiite-dominated government.

Last month, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was quoted by Lebanese newspapers as saying that he would not allow the holy Shiite shrines in Iraq to be desecrated by IS and that he was willing to “sacrifice in Iraq five times as many martyrs as we sacrificed in Syria for the sake of the holy sites because they are much more important." 

Hezbollah has a past history of clandestine involvement in Iraq. During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hezbollah initially held back, but later sent teams to Iraq and Iran to help the Revolutionary Guard form Shiite paramilitary cells that staged numerous attacks on coalition troops. One of the cells, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, has since fought in Syria on the side of the regime.

Ali Musa Daqdouq, a veteran Hezbollah commander, was the party’s senior representative in Iraq and worked closely with Asaib Ahl al-Haq. He was accused of involvement in an attack on a US base in 2007 in which five American soldiers were abducted and subsequently executed. Mr. Daqdouq was arrested by British forces in Basra in March 2007, but an Iraqi court released him in 2012, to the dismay of the Obama administration. He has since returned to Beirut. 

Keep calm and carry on

For all the regional uproar over the rapid advance of IS-led Sunni forces across northern Iraq, neither Hezbollah nor Iran appear to be panicking just yet. Ms. Slim, an expert on Hezbollah, said that during a recent visit to Tehran, she detected little panic or alarm among Iranian officials at developments in Iraq.

“They were shocked in the first 48 hours of the ISIS advance by its speed and proficiency,” Slim says. “Once they gathered their intelligence of who was behind the attack, how many fighters were involved, they came to the conclusion it is not as existential a threat as some media outlets portray it to be.”

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