Lebanon’s Hizbullah in Iraq
The NYT’s James Risen has an article about the Lebanese Shiite group, Hizbullah, “infiltrating” Iraq. If one reads the article carefully, it is clear that 1) there are only thought to be 90 or so Hizbullah agents in Iraq, and they all came last April-May; and 2) they haven’t attacked Americans or US interests. One official admitted, ‘”It’s possible that Hezbollah is there to help the Iraqis politically, to work in the Shia community,” and have no plans for terrorist attacks against Americans, the official added.’
The article seems to me to bow to conventional wisdom in several ways. It alleges that Hizbullah was behind the 1996 Khobar bombings of a US military compound in Saudi Arabia, when in fact the perpetrators have never been conclusively identified. In retrospect, that bombing looks rather more like al-Qaeda than like the Shiites. And, Risen’s sources all insist on seeing Hizbullah solely as an Iran proxy. Of course, it gets money from Iran and has close ties to Tehran. But Lebanese Shiites do have their own history and interests, and these definitely include Shiite Iraq. In the old days most Shiite clergymen in Lebanon who got a higher education did so in the Iraqi seminary cities of Najaf and Karbala, and the clerical families intermarried.
Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah, was born and brought up in Najaf and only went to Lebanon in 1965. He was initially seen as a mentor of Hizbullah but soon distanced himself from it. Fadlallah, by the way, has bucked Iran on many occasions, refusing to call for an Islamic state in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. Relations soured further after the death of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim Khu’i (Khoei) in 1992, when Fadlallah recognized Ali Sistani as the foremost Shiite jurisprudent. Sistani rejects the Khomeinist theory that the clergy must rule. And, in later years, many Arab Shiites began following Fadlallah himself. He recently had a big tiff with Qom.
Moreover, Fadlallah has often been favored as their clerical leader by the al-Da`wa Party in Iraq. Al-Da`wa is at present in alliance with the US (except for the Tehran branch), and four of the 24 members of the current Interim Governing Council have al-Da`wa ties. Fadlallah is not linked to Hizbullah, but his case demonstrates the complexities here.
There are therefore all kinds of reasons for which Hizbullah members would go to Iraq, even just to network with Iraqi coreligionists from whom they were earlier cut off. Seeing Hizbullah as only an Iranian cat’s paw is shortsighted, which is not to deny that they are sometimes a cat’s paw for Iran. (The neocons are always intimating that if only the ayatollahs in Iran were overthrown, then Israel would stop having trouble with Hizbullah on its Lebanese border. But Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon helped create Hizbullah, and its nearly two decades of occupying southern Lebanon fueled the organization’s growth, and this was mainly a Lebanese-Israeli affair. The geniuses among the Neocons, like Richard Perle and Doug Feith, who urged the Likud to pursue an American war against Iraq in 1996, said in their briefing for Likud that Iraqi Shiites would help pacify the Lebanese ones in the aftermath. As if the poor Shiites of southern Lebanon are going to listen to Ahmad Chalabi!).
If the Shiite majority eventually turns against the US occupation, as the British fear, of course the Hizbullah will probably help them. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Addendum: An informed reader writes,
“It might be worth recalling the full logic, if you want to call it
that, of the “A Clean Break” memo for dealing with the Shia of Iraq:
‘King Hussein may have ideas for Israel in bringing its Lebanon
problem under control. The predominantly Shia population of southern
Lebanon has been tied for centuries to the Shia leadership in Najf,
Iraq rather than Iran. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they
could use their influence over Najf to help Israel wean the south
Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Shia retain
strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shia venerate foremost the
Prophet’s family, the direct descendants of which – and in whose
veins the blood of the Prophet flows – is King Hussein.’
A New Strategy for Securing the Realm
Cole again: In fact, of course, the vast majority of contemporary Iraqi
Shiites has no connection to the Sunni Hashimites, and those Shiites
influenced by Khomeinism (1/3?) are militantly republican. It is the
latter that are most likely to interface with Hizbullah! I continually
marvel at the glib ignorance of Perle, Feith and other Neocons when it
comes to the real Middle East.