3 August 2014

Hezbollah Returns to Iraq

Echoes of Syria: Hezbollah reemerges in Iraq

Alexander Orleans

Institute for the Study of War , August 1, 2014

Visibility on Lebanese Hezbollah’s current response to the crisis in Iraq has markedly increased, with reliable sources describing that military advisors are being deployed from Lebanon to assist Iraqi Shi’a militia forces. Nicholas Blanford, for example, has reported that sources close to Hezbollah have revealed that a 250-member advisory unit is being deployed to Iraq. The unit’s primary mission is to advise, train, and coordinate Iraqi Shi’a militias operating under the guidance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The sources furthermore indicated that the advisory unit is also already engaged in conducting intelligence and reconnaissance operations against ISIS forces. This advisory mission echoes Hezbollah’s early primary role in Syria as advisers and trainers of pro-regime forces.

Operating in Iraq is nothing new to Hezbollah. In approximately 2005, Iran requested that Hezbollah stand up a group to support the training and operations of the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups in Iraq. The resulting organization was Hezbollah’s Unit 3800 (earlier known as Unit 2800), designed to supplant ongoing advisory efforts to Iraqi Shi’a militias being undertaken by Department 9000 of the IRGC-Qods Force’s (IRGC-QF) Ramazan Corps. Unit 3800 drew on expertise from Hezbollah’s Unit 1800, which provides support to Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, as well as Hezbollah’s own special operations community.

According to a 2010 Defense Intelligence Agency report, Department 9000 and Unit 3800 were providing “the training, tactics, and technology to conduct kidnappings, small unit tactical operations, and employ sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).” From 2003 to 2005, Hezbollah’s primary engagement was with the Mahdi Army; after the Special Groups emerged in 2006, they became the primary recipients of Unit 3800’s attention. In 2007, with rising tensions between local Iraqi Shi’a and Iranian trainers alongside marked Coalition pressure on IRGC activities in-country, Unit 3800 more and more became the Arab intermediary for Iranian support to Iraqi Shia militias. By 2008, it was reported that Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was spending “several hours” a day on matters related to Iraq.

As described by Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Unit 3800 conducted training missions in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran - while also supporting actual militia operations. Unit 3800 trainer and Hezbollah liaison to IRGC Ali Musa Daqduq, who was in custody from 2007 to 2012 before being released by Iraqi authorities, was tied to the January 20, 2007 attack on the Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, which resulted in the abduction and murder of four American soldiers. That attack was carried out by Qais al-Khazali’s Iranian-sponsored Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and later linked to Abdul Reza Shahlai, the Deputy Commander of IRGC-QF Special External Operations Unit. Evidence also exists that Hezbollah may have been conducting its own operations in Iraq as well. When conducting operations outside of Lebanon, Hezbollah has traditionally relied on its feared External Security Organization (ESO), which is responsible for both terror operations abroad and contributes to some intelligence and special operations. If Hezbollah was operating in Iraq beyond providing training, it is likely that ESO members were taking part.

Since the departure of Coalition forces from Iraq, Unit 3800 commander Khalil Harb has been spotted in Yemen in 2012 and then-U.S. Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan described Hezbollah as “training militants in Yemen.” Unit 3800’s presence was likely in support of ongoing Iranian assistance to Houthi rebels there. The training requirements of Houthi groups are more conventional than the special operations-oriented training provided to the Special Groups. Thus, between missions in Yemen and the ongoing training of Iraqi Shi’a militias for action in Syria, Unit 3800 has likely developed a more sophisticated and multifaceted training capacity by drawing on both Hezbollah’s more conventional infantry experts and special operators, such as those from the ESO.

Elite trainers from Hezbollah, such as those fielded by Unit 3800, have also played a major role in Iran’s assistance to the Syrian regime. While Hezbollah’s support to the Assad regime is clearly multifaceted, trainers in particular have played a major role in contributing to force integration between pro-Assad militias, Iraqi Shi’a militants in Syria, and the Syrian military. Hezbollah’s combat operations in Syria have also produced a new generation of experienced fighters on which it can draw. Hezbollah, alongside Iraqi Shi’a militias that have deployed to Syria, are components of an “Axis of Resistance” that have shown the ability to operate together in multiple theaters. It is telling that Muhammad Kawtharani, who as of 2013 was Hezbollah’s manager of all Iraqi operations, has assisted in coordinating the movement of Hezbollah fighters to support pro-regime forces in Syria. It would be unsurprising for Kawtharani to be involved in Hezbollah’s renewed deployment to Iraq.

No comments: