Exclusive - Iraqi Hezbollah’s Role Goes Beyond that of their Lebanese Namesake
The name “Hezbollah” has been associated with two groups: The yellow flags of the Lebanese party and its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and the more ideological and dangerous militia operating in Iraq.
The Kataib Hezbollah militia has been operating in Iraq for over 13 years. Just months ago, it was dealt one of the strongest strikes in wake of a rocket attack that targeted Iraq’s Taji base that claimed the lives of one British and two American soldiers. The response was swift, with American and British air raids against Kataib Hezbollah positions in Babel, Waset and an area near the Syrian border.
Imad Mughnieh, the notorious Lebanese terrorist and member of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, was among the people who founded the Kataib’s main structure. He was killed in an Israeli strike on Damascus in 2008. Prior to that, he had, at Tehran’s orders, started to set up a party in Iraq similar to the one in Lebanon.
He was instructed to give it military and ideological wings. Mughieh apparently seemed to have noted many flaws in his Lebanese party and set about calmly forming the Iraqi one. He even used mosques and Shiite shrines as outlets to promote the militia.
When it first emerged, it boasted more than 4,000 members. The numbers grew even more just before the United States listed it as a terrorist organization.
The Kataib were associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that are aligned with Iran, but their role extends beyond the military, being more ideologically driven.
Expert on terrorist organizations Abdulkader Mahin said the Kataib do not have a secretary general like the Lebanese party, underlining the difference between the need and role of the two organizations. The Kataib are deployed in southern Iraq and are aimed at “creating holes in the border with Iran” because they are committed to its expansionist agenda in the region. The Kataib also do not have representatives in parliament or government like the Lebanese Hezbollah.
What do the Kataib want?
Mahin said the Kataib were originally formed with a military purpose. Things changed after 2009 and they were able to form a sort of military reserve, nothing more, that they could turn to in times of need to support Iran’s policies and agendas.
This changed after the Kataib became directly involved in the conflict in Syria, where their members backed the regime of Bashar Assad. They soon came to boast 4,000 to 5,000 recruits, who were in control of Syrian cities and taking orders from Iran.
The Kataib are not limited to a military role. They still play a part in promoting their ideology and positively portraying Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Its members are also involved in the economy, with many members meddling in important aspects of the sector, such as telecommunications and oil companies, as well as the aviation sector and border controls.
Hadi Amiri, one of the group’s most notorious members, had at one point served as transport minister and had been a vocal critic of Kuwait’s construction of the Mubarak Al Kabeer Port. He had claimed that the port blocks Iraq’s access to the Gulf.
In the shadows, the Kataib were among the most prominent groups threatening diplomatic missions and undermining political solutions. This did not escape the Iraqi people. When they took to the streets in massive anti-government protests last year, the Kataib were among their favorite targets for their unabashed loyalty to Iran.
Another dark mark in the group’s history is their involvement in the 2015 “Qatari ransom” whereby they reaped the greatest reward, receiving more than 1 billion dollars in the exchange for releasing Qataris who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq during a hunting trip.
The victims had claimed to the ruling Qatari family that they were abducted by the ISIS group, but leaked reports in 2016 revealed that they were held by the Kataib. This in effect refutes the official Qatari story that said it had paid the ransom to the Baghdad government.
The Kataib Hezbollah and their Lebanese namesake will likely continue to follow in the same footsteps in the future. They will continue to spark crises in order to maintain Iran’s religious and political influence, with the Kataib studiously and carefully pursuing Tehran’s agenda in Iraq.