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The Road to Baghdad Runs Through Beirut: Hezbollah in Iraq

by Sofia Barbarani

Tunis, Tunisia

On 10 April the US State Department announced it would award up to $10 million for information on activities, networks and associates of Hezbollah’s main man in Iraq—Muhammad Kawtharani. For the first time in over a decade the turbaned commander of the Tehran-backed Lebanese organisation hit the headlines—as American interest in him grew. But the shadowy commander did not materialise overnight. His appointment as Hezbollah’s de-facto ambassador to Iraq dates back to 2003, following the US-led invasion of the country and subsequent toppling of dictator, Saddam Hussein.


In the following years, the purge of Hussein’s government employees and the re-engineering of the country’s political system prompted the return of Iraq’s exiles. By then, many had developed a strong allegiance to Iran and would go on to open Baghdad’s doors to Tehran and its proxies, including Hezbollah.


Washington’s own misunderstanding of Iraq, and the region more generally, also helped pave Tehran’s way to Baghdad. The power vacuum left by the catastrophic de-Baathification process, and an increasingly strained relationship between US forces and Iraqi civilians quickly turned ‘liberators’ into invaders. Meanwhile, Iran continued to build its presence through social, economic and political projects, while its deep-rooted understanding of the country provided Tehran an air of legitimacy that Washington lacked.


In a recent interview aired on BBC Radio 4, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, claimed Iran was “simply not present at all … there was no Iranian push while I was there.” Caught in its violent military enterprise, America seemingly missed Iran’s soft power. And, while the US designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation in 1997, it was not until 2013 that Kawtharani caught Washington’s eye, prompting the US Treasury Department to sanction him for his efforts to “provide training, funding, political and logistical support to Iraq’s Shia insurgent groups” and condemning Hezbollah for carrying out “pernicious activities that reach beyond the border of Lebanon.”


Today, America’s battle against Iranian influence in the region is ongoing, and is often punctuated by bouts of violence—not least, in January, when the US targeted and assassinated Iranian al Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani. But the power vacuum likely desired by the Americans was swiftly filled. Just hours after the killing of Soleimani, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that Soleimani’s deputy Esmail Qaani was succeeding the general. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Kawtharani was moving to take over some of the “political coordination of Iran-aligned paramilitary groups” once entrusted to Soleimani, according to the US State Department.


As Kawtharani’s list of responsibilities grew, so did alarm bells in Washington. According to Reuters news agency, the Lebanese commander was tasked with hosting a series of urgent meetings between Hezbollah members and Iraqi militia leaders not long after the death of Soleimani in an attempt to pre-empt possible rifts between the groups. Though vastly outranked by Soleimani, Kawtharani’s newfound role mirrors that of the late Quds leader, particularly when it comes to manoeuvring political decisions in favour of Tehran: “in that role, [Kawtharani] was like a copy of Soleimani,” AFP reported on 21 April, citing a senior Iraqi general.


But Kawtharani is by no means a replacement for Soleimani, said Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad. Although they mostly alight, “Hezbollah operates a foreign policy separate from Iran on Iraq,” explained Jiyad. However, he added, “Hezbollah will be more active in dealing with Iraqi parties given Soleimani’s absence from the scene.”


This is likely to have impacted Adnan al Zurfi’s failed attempt at piecing together a government, leading him to resign less than a month after taking on the role of prime minister designate. Zurfi, a American citizen, was strongly rejected by Iran-backed Shiite blocs because of his alleged pro-American stance. On 09 April, Mustafa al-Kadhimi was appointed to take over from Zurfi and given a month to bring together a cabinet.


According to Jiyad, Kawtharani is likely to have sought consensus in favour of Kadhimi in order to discard Zurfi and his American ties: “It was important at the time that Zurfi be rejected, the only other viable candidate on which all parties could agree in place of Zurfi was Kadhimi”.


So far, however, Kadhimi seems likely to go down the same road as his predecessors. According to local media reports on April 24, the cabinet list presented by the new prime minister designate was rejected in its entirety by the county’s Shia factions.


In a deeply fractured and fragile political system, Kawtharani is reported to have played a key role in reconciling some of the Sunni and Shia political factions, an idiosyncratic talent that does not go unnoticed in Iraq. Married to an Iraqi woman and fluent in the local dialect, the Lebanese playmaker is said to be well-versed in the country’s political game. For years he has travelled back and forth between Lebanon and Iraq and coordinated with Iran, carrying out the same shuttle diplomacy that Soleimani was known for.


Among other reasons, Iran helped create Hezbollah in the early 1980s to widen its regional outreach, but at a time in which Tehran is dealing with worrying internal struggles – including a dire economy and social grievances – the regime is increasing its dependence on proxies as a means to maintain a grip on the region. Iraq, with a shared border and important economic and historical ties, is of utmost importance. So much so that when Iraqi protesters took to the streets to demand an end to foreign interference, Iran-backed militias set out to violently quash the mass demonstrations, killing hundreds of civilians between October 2019 and April 2020. According to the US State Department, Kawtharani facilitated the actions of the groups “that have violently suppressed protests, attacked foreign diplomatic missions, and engaged in wide-spread organised criminal activity.”


For years, the US and Iran have battled out their differences on Iraqi soil. The latest spike in violence took place in February when Iraqi bases hosting coalition troops were targeted by Iran-backed militias, following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to target American bases, soldiers and warships in retaliation for the killing of the Iranian general. 


While the world’s gaze falls on the turbulent Twitter exchanges between President Donald Trump and the Iranian regime, shadowy power brokers like Hezbollah’s Kawtharani continue to work behind the scenes, with the savoir faire of a seasoned diplomat intent on influencing Iraq’s political process.

30 April 2020

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