The Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, has stepped into the vacuum left by the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who helped coordinate disparate pro-Tehran militias in neighboring Iraq and was killed in a US airstrike on January 3.
Citing anonymous sources with knowledge of the matter, Reuters reported on Tuesday that Hezbollah representative Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani had met with local militia leaders to try and “unite them in the face of a huge void left by their powerful mentor’s death” and “coordinate [their] political efforts.”
Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, a division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps that runs its overseas operations. He was the organization’s point man in Iraq and maintained close relations with various armed factions there.
Citing two sources, Reuters reported that the meetings started almost immediately after the US airstrike that killed Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Committee.
The report also cited a pro-Iranian official as stating that Hezbollah’s role is temporary and will only last until the Quds Force’s new leadership “gets a handle on the political crisis in Iraq.”
“A lot of faction leaders see themselves as too big and important to take orders from,” Reuters quoted one source as saying of al-Kawtharani. “For now, because of pressure from Iran, they’re cooperating with him, but I doubt that will continue and the Iranians know that.”
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle the Islamic State after the extremist group seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. There are currently some 5,200 American troops in the country.
The relationship is especially rocky in the aftermath of the American airstrike that killed Soleimani. The Iraqi government has indicated it could expel all foreign forces, although it has not yet taken action against the US presence.
A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-US militias that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi lawmakers sympathetic to its cause.