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.
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."
In a statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said that "unfortunately, the US statesmen are in the habit of repeating false and ridiculous claims without presenting any documents."
Some say collusion between Iran and Hizbullah in Iraq is in keeping with networks Iran has built in Iraq since 2003 – partly, Iranian analysts often say, to give it leverage against US forces in case of a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "I don't think it's that surprising that you have Hizbullah people operating in Iraq – what is surprising is how few have actually been caught," says Mahan Abedin, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism in London.
"Intelligence penetration [in Iraq], aiding insurgent groups, and making life difficult for the Americans and Brits…. [T]he Qods Force is very much involved in Iraq – I think that is beyond dispute," says Mr. Abedin. "The Americans are not saying anything that we don't know, but where they are getting it wrong is in the details.
In Iraq, "the most important thing [the Qods] force has done is transfer a set of skills to a select number of groups and individuals," he adds. "I don't think the Qods Force is directly involved in any anti-British or anti-American attacks, because the reaction would be very harsh. If [the US] really had evidence that Iranians had killed 200-odd of their soldiers, as they claimed in January, they … would be hitting back."
There are many sources for enhanced roadside bombs. Some of the explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) copy previous Hizbullah ones, though Abedin notes that Saddam Hussein sent a military intelligence team to Lebanon in 1995 to learn about Hizbullah's use of the bombs. US and British forces routinely find EFP workshops in central and southern Iraq.
Hizbullah sees some of Iraq's insurgents as part of a Shiite-led "Axis of Resistance" that includes Iran, Syria, and Palestinian groups like Hamas.
Hizbullah did offer assistance to Iraqi insurgents early on, but were told they were not needed, says Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based security analyst. "They have tried to stay away from the Iraq war as an organization, although some Hizbullah individuals have traveled there on their own," he says.
Among them appears to be Daqduq who, if that is his real name and he is a Hizbullah veteran as the US claims, may hold an important guerrilla pedigree.
A Hizbullah fighter called Abdel-Karim Daqduq was killed battling the Israelis in south Lebanon in 1999. A Hizbullah squad that assassinated a commander of an Israeli proxy militia in 2000 was named "Ibrahim Daqduq," after a dead Hizbullah fighter of note.
The family comes from the Hizbullah bastion of Ait al-Shaab, a south Lebanon village hard hit by the war last summer – and from where another Daqduq was briefly abducted by the Israelis during the conflict.
But Hizbullah has another link to Iraq that reaches back three decades, when much of the leadership had religious training in Najaf. "The ties that bind Hizbullah with the Iraqi Shiite community are deep, longstanding, and brotherly," adds Ranstorp. "There is a natural line running through Beirut, and Baghdad and Najaf, to Tehran."
Still, some argue, the stepped up US accusations may be only tactical move. "The Americans know full well that the Iranians are not really their enemy in Iraq," says Abedin. "The Iranians may have hurt Americans or Britons here or there, they may have even been complicit in the killing of American soldiers."
"But if you look at the sheer range of enemies the US faces in Iraq, the Iranians pale in comparison," he says. "The smart elements in the US occupation machine in Iraq understand that if they are to extricate themselves successfully ... they need a lot of Iranian help."