If conflict erupts, Iran can call on the allies Soleimani himself cultivated
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If conflict erupts, Iran can call on the allies Soleimani himself cultivated

The Iranian general helped build a vast network of Iranian influence through the region; now Iran could mobilize them to avenge his death and dramatically expand the battlefield

Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march in Baghdad, Iraq, May 31, 2019. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces march in Baghdad, Iraq, May 31, 2019. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

AP — If Iran decides to follow through on its vow of harsh retaliation for the killing of its top general, it can call upon heavily armed allies across the Middle East that are within easy striking distance of US forces and American allies.

It’s a network that was developed over nearly two decades by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed along with senior Iraqi militants in a US airstrike near Baghdad’s international airport overnight. He enjoyed the fierce loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip who received aid, arms and training from Tehran.

Iran has used such groups in the past to strike its regional foes, including Israel, and could mobilize them if the killing of Soleimani ignites an armed conflict — dramatically expanding the battlefield.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the US after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”

Here’s a look at Tehran’s allies in the Mideast:

Iraq militias

Iran has trained, financed, and equipped Shiite militias in Iraq that battled US forces in the years after the 2003 invasion and remobilized to battle the Islamic State group a decade later.

The groups include Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, all three led by men with close ties to Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the strike that felled Soleimani. The US blamed his group for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base last week that killed a US contractor. It responded with airstrikes over the weekend that killed 25 of his fighters.

Fighters of Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization units) flash the victory gesture as they advance through a street in the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after the Iraqi government announced the launch of the operation to retake it from Islamic State (IS) group control, on August 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

The militias fall under the umbrella of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of mostly Shiite militias that were incorporated into the country’s armed forces in 2016. Together they number more than 140,000 fighters, and while they fall under the authority of Iraq’s prime minister, the PMF’s top brass are politically aligned with Iran.

US forces and the PMF fought side-by-side against Islamic State militants after Iraq’s parliament invited the US back into the country in 2014. But in recent months militia leaders have called on US troops to leave again, threatening to expel them by force if necessary.

Hezbollah

The group, whose Arabic name translates into “Party of God,” was established by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Today it is among the most effective armed groups in the region, extending Iran’s influence to Israel’s doorstep.

Hezbollah was formed to combat Israel following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It waged an 18-year guerrilla war against Israeli forces, eventually leading them to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Six years later, it battled Israel to a bloody stalemate in a monthlong war.

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Iran-backed Hezbollah brigades march during a military parade in Baghdad on May 31, 2019. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Today, the group has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles that can reach deep into Israel, as well as thousands of highly disciplined and battle-hardened fighters. Hezbollah has fought alongside government forces in Syria for more than six years, gaining even more battlefield experience and expanding its reach.

At home, the group’s power exceeds that of the Lebanese armed forces, and it is part of a political alliance that now leads the government and parliament.

Hezbollah has said it is not seeking another war with Israel, and it is not likely to join in any regional confrontation — at least not in the early stages — unless provoked. Hezbollah has lost hundreds of fighters in Syria, exacting a heavy toll on the Shiite community from which it draws most of its support.

Yemen’s Houthis

Yemen’s Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, swept down from the north and captured the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict on the side of the government the following year. The war has since killed tens of thousands of people and generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Illustrative: Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels chant slogans during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters into battlefronts to fight pro-government forces, in Sana’a, Yemen, January 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, and along with Western nations and UN experts has accused Tehran of providing arms to the rebels, including the long-range missiles they have fired into Saudi Arabia. Iran supports the rebels but denies arming them.

The Houthis have given up little ground since the coalition entered the war, and have targeted the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with long-range missiles. Last year they claimed a drone attack that shut down a major oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, which responded with airstrikes on Yemen’s rebel-held capital that killed civilians.

Gaza groups

Iran has long supported Palestinian armed groups, including Gaza’s Hamas rulers and particularly the smaller Islamic Jihad group.

Hamas fell out with Iran after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, losing millions of dollars in monthly assistance, but Tehran is said to have continued its military support to Hamas’s armed wing.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists attend the funeral of one of their members in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Tensions have run high in Gaza since Israel’s targeted killing of an Islamic Jihad commander last month, which set off a brief two-day bout of fighting. Hamas, which has been negotiating a period of calm with Israel through Egyptian mediators, stayed on the sidelines.

Hamas is in a severe financial crisis and appears to get most of its aid from Qatar, making it less likely that it would rally to Tehran’s side in a regional conflict. But Islamic Jihad, still smarting from the recent fighting, could be keen to join in any regional conflict by firing rockets.

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