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Lebanese Hezbollah unlikely to intervene in Iraq crisis

Although some have expressed concerns that Hezbollah could intervene in Iraq to protect Shiite holy sites from Islamic State militants, a number of Lebanese politicians and sources close to Hezbollah dismiss this possibility.
Shiite volunteers from Hezbollah Iraq, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), gather together in Baghdad, July 6, 2014. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition should withdraw its support for his bid for a third term and pick another candidate, Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged, amid parliamentary deadlock over the formation of a new government. Maliki has come under mounting pressur

In a private meeting with Imam al-Mahdi Scouts this past June, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was reported as saying, “In Syria, I said, ‘The Sayyida Zeinab [daughter of Imam Ali] shrine will not be taken captive twice,’ and in Iraq I say, ‘The time when we allowed anyone in the world to destroy or desecrate our holy sites at Najaf, Karbala, Samarra is long gone.’”

Nasrallah’s statement came after the Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, occupied Mosul and other cities in the north and west of Iraq over the last month, and after their threats to storm Shiite cities in Samarra, Najaf and Karbala and destroy the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Muhammad).

According to some Lebanese newspapers, Nasrallah said that he was “ready to sacrifice in Iraq five times as many martyrs as we sacrificed in Syria for the sake of holy sites, because they are much more important.”

These statements led some media figures and politicians to predict the possibility of Hezbollah taking part in the fighting in Iraq alongside the Iraqi army and Shiite militias against IS militants, their extremist Sunni allies and former Baathists. Some analysts considered these statements as a clear indication of Hezbollah’s readiness to participate in defending Shiite holy sites, if need be.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, a source close to Hezbollah denied there was participation of Hezbollah militants in the war against IS in Iraq. He said that the demographics of Iraq, given that Shiites are the majority, rule out these allegations.

The source said, “Iraqis are not in need of help from the Lebanese group. There are millions of Iraqi Shiites and thousands of them are volunteering with the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias, and they are well prepared and trained. They include groups such as the Badr Organization, which took part in the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) with Iran against the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and the remnants of Mahdi Army.”

"Hezbollah is intervening in Syria to protect the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in the outskirts of Damascus and to avoid the fall of the regime — what then prevents it from intervening in Iraq where there are larger numbers of holy sites that are far more important?” Al-Monitor asked the source, who replied by saying that the situation in Syria was different because it was adjacent to Lebanon and extremist groups were about to occupy and destroy the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. He also noted that these groups have already occupied Shiite villages on the Lebanese-Syrian border.

When it comes to Iraq, the source continued, there is no pressing threat against the holy sites in Karbala and Najaf. Additionally, thousands of Iraqi Shiites volunteered to protect the shrine of the two Askari Imams in Samarra in the Anbar province, so to prevent a reoccurrence of the events of February 2006, when the predecessors of IS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi-led al-Qaeda in Iraq, blew up the Askari Shiite mosque in Samarra.

The same source added that since Iran is adjacent to Iraq, Hezbollah does not need to interfere. If the need arose for an intervention to protect the Shiite holy sites or the capital, Iran would do so for two reasons: first because it neighbors Iraq, and second, its large military, humanitarian, and logistical capacities.

During the aforementioned meeting, Nasrallah praised the religious authority in Najaf and its call on Iraqis for “competence-based jihad” against terrorists, not for protecting the sect but Iraq as a whole.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Walid Sukaria, a Lebanese member of parliament for the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, doubted that Hezbollah would intervene in Iraq, saying, “What could Hezbollah do in Iraq?” indicating that Hezbollah was not needed there.

Sukaria said, “Hezbollah entering areas in Syria that are adjacent to Lebanon was aimed at protecting Lebanon against these terrorists, whether in Homs, Qusair or Qalamoun. Hezbollah headed to the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus to protect it, which is of paramount importance.”

“What would Hezbollah do in Iraq? Terrorism [there] does not border Lebanon and the holy sites in Iraq do not need 100 or 200 militants of Hezbollah to protect them. Iraq has a people that can protect its holy sites and has hundreds of thousands of militants to fight terrorism and protect holy sites,” he said.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, former Lebanese minister and former head of the Kataeb Party Karim Pakradouni ruled out the possibility of Hezbollah taking part in the fighting alongside the Iraqi army against IS. “Hezbollah intervened in Syria for the sake of Lebanon,” he said, “to protect the Lebanese national security. Today, Iran is playing an important role and can fulfill the task without the help of Hezbollah. Iran is capable of implementing the project of legitimacy and preserve Iraq. This is why I doubt the interference of Hezbollah in Iraq as opposed to the news spread about the party intervening to protect holy sites as happened in Syria.”

March 14 movement forces warned Hezbollah against the participation in the fighting in Iraq, “given its political and security repercussions that would be damaging to Lebanon, a country that is already struggling with a brittle security and presidential vacuum.” The March 14 forces called on Hezbollah to learn from the “experience in Syria and the ensuing security situation in terms of explosions and suicide bombers.” The March 14 camp asked Hezbollah to stop embroiling Lebanon in regional conflicts.

An Iraqi source, however, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor that Hezbollah has sent some of its cadres to work as consultants, to supervise the organization and training of Iraqi Shiite factions and prepare them to fight IS. These sources affirmed that there are no Hezbollah militants in Iraq as there is no need for them.

It is important to note that Hezbollah has played an important role in training some of the Iraqi Shiite militants in Iraq against the US occupation post-2003. In fact, the US forces in Iraq detained a number of Hezbollah cadres over accusations of training Iraqi resistance fighters and supplying weaponry and explosives.

Hezbollah also enjoys historical ties with all political Shiite parties like the Dawa Party led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council led by Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrist movement, in addition to military factions such as the Badr Organization, the Mahdi Army, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and the Iraqi Hezbollah.

It is not a secret that Shiism, political Islam and relations with Iran are common denominators between Hezbollah and these Iraqi factions, even though they have different views on the relation with Iran and Velayat-e Faqih.