Last week an American general in Baghdad announced that a veteran Hezbollah commander had been caught in Iraq and had admitted to training and directing anti-American Iraqi militias in coordination with Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard. The presence of Hezbollah in Iraq has been alleged by American officials before, but last week’s announcement marked the first time the militant Shi’ite group has been accused of involvement in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq.
The allegations by General Kevin Bergner, if true, lay the lie to Hezbollah claims that it has shed its terrorist past and become solely a Lebanese political party. A number of prominent critics of the Bush administration, however, are expressing serious doubts about the veracity of the claims. The announcement, they say, is part of a campaign by hawkish administration officials to gain support for using military force against Iran.
“You’ll just have to pardon me if I’m very skeptical about all intelligence we gather these days under this administration, particularly that gathered through interrogation,” said Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired colonel and former chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell. “I’m just an intelligence user for 40 years — and a much burned one at that — but I can poke huge holes in this from a number of angles… It sounds like someone spinning a tale for ulterior motives.”
The drumbeat of American accusations against Iran has been growing in recent months, during which time the American military has detained several Iranian officials in Iraq. While the initial allegations focused on Iranian support for Shi’ite militias in Iraq, they now also include backing for Sunni Iraqi groups and Tehran’s erstwhile enemy in Afghanistan, the Taliban.
The recent charges are the most specific to be leveled by Washington against Tehran and its proxies. In his July 2 briefing, Bergner said Iranian special forces were using Hezbollah cadres to train the Iraqi insurgents who conducted a sophisticated attack in Karbala early this year that killed five American soldiers. He told reporters that a senior Hezbollah operative known as Ali Mussa Daqduq had been nabbed in Basra on March 20, and had since confessed to training Iraqis in Iran to carry out attacks in Iraq.
Hezbollah reportedly rejected the claims. Iran, for its part, called them “fabricated and ridiculous.”
The allegations against Hezbollah come at a sensitive time in Lebanon, where the militant group is spearheading opposition to the Western-backed government. Both camps are locked in a tense standoff over electing a new president and the fate of an international tribunal investigating a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.
Mark Perry, a military analyst who has been in regular contact with Hezbollah, is skeptical of Bergner’s claims. The general became the head spokesman for the American military in Iraq in June, having served previously as a special assistant to President Bush.
“I don’t believe this report, because it’s not in the interest of Hezbollah,” said Perry, a co-director of Conflicts Forum, which has organized meetings in recent years between leaders of the militant group and former American and British intelligence officials. “I am bothered that a general in Baghdad makes these claims instead of the civilian leadership in the Pentagon.”
In recent months, American officials have stepped up their accusations against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has long been accused of being Hezbollah’s patron in Lebanon. At Washington’s request, seven of the guard’s commanders were included on a list of Iranian officials whose assets were frozen by a United Nations Security Council resolution in March.
According to former senior intelligence officials, the close ties between the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, as well as the Lebanese militants’ proven combat experience and fluency in Arabic, make the group’s presence in Iraq entirely plausible.
“I do know how terribly close Hezbollah has been to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the Quds Force, since the 1980s,” said Wayne White, who headed the State Department’s intelligence bureau on the Middle East until early 2005. “The bottom line is that despite Hezbollah’s relatively narrow Lebanese focus, it has worked so closely with the Guards, and has received so much assistance from the Guards, that if the Quds Force specifically asked for help from Hezbollah in training fellow Shi’ites in Iraq, Hezbollah would find it extremely difficult to refuse such a request.”
Others have noted multiple reasons why Hezbollah would have an interest in being involved in Iraq. Israeli operatives are allegedly on the ground in Kurdistan, the largely autonomous northern region whose leadership has relatively friendly relations with Jerusalem. And a number of those who founded Hezbollah in the early 1980s were members of the Lebanese branch of Dawa, an Iraqi Islamist party now headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Hezbollah’s alleged activity in Iraq, says Paul Pillar, the CIA’s top Middle East analyst until 2005, is not new. But the Lebanese militants, he notes, are far from the only ones operating in the war zone.
“Whatever it may be doing in Iraq,” Pillar said, “the Hezbollah leadership no doubt views this as just one more bit of external involvement that is no more of a departure than the involvement of numerous other players — including the likes of Iran, Turkey, Sunni Arab governments, Sunni terrorist groups and, of course, the United States.”