Friday, July 28, 2006

Nasrallah's other fight

Olivier Guitta, Asia Times:
In the past few weeks, Hassan Nasrallah (which means in Arabic "God's victory"), the secretary general of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah (the Party of God), has almost become a household name.

Even though Nasrallah has become "famous" for starting this new Hezbollah-Israel war and declaring Israel as Hezbollah's mortal enemy, one should not forget that the "big Satan" remains the United States. And that's why Iraq is where Nasrallah's influence can also be felt.

Nasrallah's biography explains how he got close to prominent clerics in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, in particular the Sadr family. In 1975, when he was only 15, Nasrallah joined the ranks of the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Amal - which Hezbollah broke from after its creation in 1982 - led by Musa al-Sadr. READ MORE

From 1976 to 1978 he was sent to study in Najaf, Iraq, at the famed Shi'ite seminary the Hawze. There he met most of his mentors, starting with Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979) and also his tutor, ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr's father). He also was in close contact with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (the leading Shi'ite spiritual force in Iraq today).

And finally, he was groomed by future Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi, whom he succeeded after Musawi was killed by the Israelis in 1992. Those two years in Najaf definitely left a huge imprint on Nasrallah's psyche.

And that's why, when it was time to help his Shi'ite brothers in Iraq after the US intervention in 2003, and especially Muqtada, Nasrallah responded. Nasrallah, using the 1982 model of what had worked in Lebanon to kick out the multinational force, adapted some of his tactics in Iraq.

Indeed, Iraq in 2006 looks a lot like the Lebanon of 1983. For example, the Iranian man in charge of this whole operation is Hassan Qommi, who had the exact same job ... in Beirut in 1982. Qommi helped Hezbollah instructors get to Iraq to train Muqtada's Mehdi Army, which has staged several high-profile confrontations with US forces, notably at Fallujah.

Starting in 2003, Hezbollah began building up organizational and military apparatuses in Iraq. For instance, that April, Hezbollah opened two offices in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Safwan. The campaign, targeting moderate Iraqi Shi'ite clerics willing to work with the US, was most likely orchestrated by Muqtada and Hezbollah.

Keep in mind that even though Nasrallah greatly respects Sistani, he is totally at odds with him when it comes to fighting the US presence.

Also in 2003-04, Imad Mughniah, the top Hezbollah operative wanted by most Western secret services for his role in most of the attacks perpetrated by Hezbollah, including the bombings of the US Embassy and the US and French barracks in Beirut in 1983, was sighted in Iraq. Syria had most probably facilitated his entry on to Iraqi soil.

Hezbollah also had a specialty in Lebanon in the 1980s, which was kidnapping foreign citizens. Is it a coincidence that it was happening on a daily basis in 2004 in Iraq?

Knowing that Nasrallah called for suicide bombings against the US forces in Iraq, it was just a matter of time until Hezbollah was ready to strike. The connection with Muqtada is total. For proof of Hezbollah's active participation in the insurgency there are the arrests made in February 2005 by Iraqi authorities of 18 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters taking part in the insurgency.

In a July 11 speech that was really focused on the situation with Israel, Nasrallah made a point of again talking about Iraq. He specifically called for Iraqis to step up their resistance against the US invader. In response, Muqtada offered to send members of his militia to south Lebanon to fight Israel. This is not surprising, since Muqtada declared in 2004 that he was "the striking arm for Hezbollah".

Obviously, Hezbollah as a multinational group cannot be simply reduced to Lebanon and Israel. Its expansion into Iraq fits strategically very well in the plans of its two sponsors: Syria and Iran.

Richard Armitage, former US deputy secretary of state, has said that the United States had a blood debt with Nasrallah's organization. In light of the fact that Hezbollah was, prior to the September 11 attacks of 2001, the organization that had killed the most Americans, and the likelihood of additional killings of US soldiers in Iraq, now would be a good time to repay the debt.

Olivier Guitta is a foreign-affairs and counter-terrorism consultant in Washington, DC. He can be reached at