Hezbollah ‘trainer’ killed during fighting in northern Iraq

Hezbollah celebrated the death of a military “trainer” who was killed recently during fighting against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based terror group has a long history of supporting Shia militias inside Iraq.

Ibrahim al Hajj, who is described as a Hezbollah “commander” and “a technical trainer,” was killed while “performing his jihadi duties,” Al Jazeera reported. Although initial reports claimed he had died fighting in Qalamoun in Syria, Hajj is now said to have been killed while fighting the Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar.

Hajj was buried yesterday “in the village of Qilya in the Bekaa Valley,” a Hezbollah official told Al Jazeera. The Bekaa Valley is a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon. The valley is used by Hezbollah to stage operations inside Syria against Syrian rebel and jihadist groups in support of President Bashar al Assad’s government.

Video of Hajj’s funeral was released on YouTube [the video is reproduced above]. Hezbollah gave Hajj the equivalent of a military funeral with full honors. Thousands of people are seen in a large procession as his casket is carried through the streets. Hezbollah military personnel and the group’s yellow flag are seen everywhere.

Hezbollah trained Iraq’s Shia terror groups

The death of a Hezbollah military trainer and commander inside Iraq should come as no surprise. Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, are following the same playbook in Iraq that they are currently using in Syria, where Hezbollah trains local Syrian militias loyal to Assad as well as augmenting military units on the battlefield.

Hezbollah has long had a foothold inside Iraq. Hezbollah, with the backing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force, is known to have helped establish and support Shia terror groups inside Iraq almost immediately after the US invasion in the spring of 2003. [See LWJ report, Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq, for more information on Iran’s support of the Shia terror groups.]

Musa Ali Daqduq, a top Hezbollah operative who helped establish the Shia terror groups, was in US custody before being released in late 2011.

In its designation of Daqduq as a global terrorist in November 2012, the US Treasury Department said that sometime in 2005, “Iran asked Hezbollah to form a group to train Iraqis to fight Coalition Forces in Iraq.” The designation stated: “In response, Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s leader] established a covert Hezbollah unit to train and advise Iraqi militants in Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) [or Mahdi Army] and JAM Special Groups, now known as Asaib Ahl al Haq [the League of the Righteous],” a Mahdi Army faction.

“As of 2006, Daqduq had been ordered by Hezbollah to work with IRGC-QF [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force] to provide training and equipment to JAM Special Groups to augment their ability to inflict damage against US troops,” Treasury continued.

The US captured Daqduq in Basrah, Iraq in March 2007. The Hezbollah commander served as the chief of Nasrallah’s bodyguards as well as the head of the terror group’s special operations branch. Daqduq was released to Iraqi custody in December 2011 as the US withdrew from Iraq with the promise that he would be tried for his war crimes. But in 2012, he was freed by the Iraqi government. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said that Daqduq is involved with supporting Iraqi militias who are fighting in Syria.

The US also had one of Daqduq’s proteges, Qais Qazali, who leads the Asaib al Haq, in custody. Qazali, his brother Laith, and Daqduq were all captured during the same raid. Qais and Laith were freed by the US in 2009 along with hundreds of members of the Asaib al Haq, in exchange for a captured British hostage and the remains of four Brits who were executed by the group. After his release, Qais threatened to attack US interests in Iraq.

Asaib al Haq was directly implicated by General David Petraeus in the January 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala. Five US soldiers were killed during the Karbala attack and subsequent kidnapping attempt. The US soldiers were executed after US and Iraqi security forces closed in on the assault team.

The attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center was a complex, sophisticated operation. The assault team, led by tactical commander Azhar al Dulaimi, was trained in a mock-up of the center that was built in Iran. The unit had excellent intelligence and received equipment that made them appear to be US soldiers. Some of the members of the assault team are said to have spoken English.

The Iranian and Hezbollah-backed terror groups in Iraq proved to be deadly foes to the US military. At one point in time, US military officials said that more than 10 percent of US combat deaths in Iraq between 2004 and 2009 were caused by the Shia groups.

Hezbollah continues to train Shia terror groups in Iraq. In August 2013, the US Treasury Department identified Muhammad Kawtharani as “the individual in charge of Hezbollah’s Iraq activities.” According to Treasury, Kawtharani, a member of the terror group’s Political Council, was involved in providing “training, funding, political, and logistical support to Iraqi Shia insurgent groups.” Kawtharani has helped facilitate the movement of “fighters to Syria to support the Assad regime.” Additionally, Kawtharani was involved in securing the release of Ali Musa Daqduq.

US intelligence officials who track the Shia terror groups inside Iraq told The Long War Journal that they fear that the Shia terror groups may yet again turn their guns on US interests in Baghdad.

“If the Islamic State ramps up the violence in the capital and the security situation devolves, they [Shia groups] may use the chaos to exact revenge and strike the [US] embassy complex,” one official said. He described this as a “nightmare scenario” that could force the evacuation of all US personnel from Iraq.

According to another US official, “These groups still harbor animosity towards the US for the occupation of Iraq and for culling their ranks,” during heavy fighting in Sadr City in Baghdad that broke out in the spring of 2008. At the time, one Mahdi Army commander claimed that more than 1,000 fighters were killed during heavy clashes. “They haven’t forgotten,” the US official said.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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