- - Tuesday, December 12, 2017

JERUSALEM — The prominent Iraqi Shiite militia leader can be clearly seen, standing with militants from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and issuing threats to Israel from across the northern border in Lebanon.

“I am here with my brothers from Hezbollah,” Qais al-Khazali, the Baghdad-born leader of the Iraqi-based Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. “We announce that we are fully prepared and ready to stand as one with the Lebanese people with the Palestinian cause.”

Mr. al-Khazali’s visit, captured in a video released on YouTube this month, is the most recent threat to the Jewish state along its northern border and symbolizes a more aggressive phase in the way Iranian-backed proxy forces now operate unimpeded from Tehran to Beirut.

Mr. al-Khazali’s anti-Israel comments are part of a larger Iranian-supported agenda that looms over the region, one that has raised alarm bells in Washington and with U.S. Sunni Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia. The open links between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah represent a case study in miniature of how a newly assertive Iran is deploying proxy forces to extend its influence and unsettle its adversaries across the region.

Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya, said it was notable that the Iraqi militia leader felt secure enough to record himself promising to cooperate in a future war against Israel and posting it online for the world to see.

“It shows the way the attention of [the Iranian] camp is shifting as the Syrian war winds down, and it is shifting toward [focus on] Israel on a propaganda level,” he said.

Israeli retired Brig. Gen. Shimon Shapira, a former military secretary to the prime minister, said the al-Khazali visit was part of a larger Iranian plan to use its growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Lebanon to its strategic advantage.

“Ultimately, Iran wants to build a military infrastructure so that it can pursue its jihad against Israel on two fronts: the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights. Here, too, Iran prefers to make use of a proxy,” the retired general, now a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote this week.

“In addition to Hezbollah, Iran is laying the groundwork to absorb tens of thousands of fighters of the Shiite Legion as they wind up the war against the Islamic State to the region from the outskirts of Damascus to the Golan Heights,” he said.

Mr. al-Khazali is a potent symbol of the shift because he played a major role in fighting the U.S. military presence in Iraq in the past and rebranded himself as a politician and regional figure aligned with the Islamic regime in Tehran. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri sharply condemned Mr. al-Khazali’s visit, saying his “activities of a military nature” in the country were illegal.

“We are not in a “banana republic,” the Lebanese prime minister said Monday. “We are a state, and whoever violates the law must pay for it.”

Mr. al-Khazali first came to the attention of the U.S. in Iraq in 2004 when he was serving alongside powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that fought U.S. forces in the early days after the 2003 invasion.

Mr. al-Khazali later broke with Mr. Sadr, and his fighters began to receive training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to become its own Shiite militia. According to Stanford University’s Mapping Militant Organizations, project, Asaib Ahl al-Haq “has relied heavily on Iranian funding, training and logistical support and in return has acted as an Iranian proxy in Iraq, carrying out its agenda and promoting its interests.”

In 2006, elements of the militia went to Lebanon to link up with Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Shiite militant group that provoked an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel that year.

In Iraq, Mr. al-Khazali grew close to IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and focused attacks on American forces trying to contain sectarian violence unleashed with the fall of Saddam Hussein. After an attack in March 2007 in which five Americans were killed in Karbala, Mr. al-Khazali was captured and imprisoned until he was released in 2009 in what reports say appeared to be a quiet exchange for Peter Moore, a British computer consultant kidnapped by the militia group.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party welcomed Mr. al-Khazali’s return to be “part of the political process,” and his militia became influential in the suppression of restive Sunni Arab areas in Iraq under Mr. al-Maliki.

Rise of Shiite militias

Since the stunning rise of Islamic State in 2014, Mr. al-Khazali has been part of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or “Popular Mobilization Forces,” the group of Shiite militias fighting alongside the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition to drive Islamic State from Mosul and other strongholds in the country. In 2016, these militias became an official force under the Iraqi Security Forces controlled by Baghdad.

When Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, on a trip to the region in October, urged these sectarian militias to “go home,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi defended their role as the “hope of the country and the region.”

But the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has threatened U.S. forces deployed in Iraq numerous times.

“If the U.S. administration doesn’t withdraw its forces immediately, we will deal with them as forces of occupation,” the militia said in March 2016. Last month, Mr. al-Khazali suggested on Twitter that Islamic State was a tool of the Trump administration and claimed that defeating it was a victory over the “House of Saud, America and Israel.”

When President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last week, Mr. al-Khazali warned that “considering Jerusalem as the capital of the Zionist entity is the beginning of the end of the racist Israeli project.”

In the video he made standing on the Lebanese border, just several hundred yards from the Israeli town of Metulla, Mr. al-Khazali said the combined “Islamic resistance” of his militia and Hezbollah was prepared to “heed the call of Islam” and pave the way for justice against Israel, which he accused of being anti-Islam and anti-Arab.

Mr. Spyer said that while Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s collaboration with Hezbollah is not new, the rhetoric of allying in a pan-Islamic cause to attack Israel was a significant development. The winding-down of the Syrian civil war and the ouster of Islamic State from virtually all of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria signaled a new phase in the Middle East struggle.

“There are very real tensions between Israel and Iran in southwest Syria and a potential collision course there,” he said.

On Dec. 2, Syrian media blamed Israel for the bombing of a suspected Iranian military base south of Damascus.

“There is a concern that in a future war, given that Iran has an uninterrupted corridor from Khazali in Iraq to the southwestern Syrian city of Quneitra, in any future war it wouldn’t just be Lebanese fighting Israel, it would potentially be other proxies fighting Israel,” said Mr. Spyer, who has been carrying out research in Iraq and Syria.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a commentator at Asharq Al-Awsat accused Iran of masterminding Mr. al-Khazali’s trip to Lebanon “to ignite a battle between Lebanon and Israel.” Iran is seeking to use Lebanon as a new front against Israel, and Iraq’s militias are part of the provocation, he wrote.

The Iraqi militia’s support for Hezbollah can help replace losses it suffered fighting Islamic State on behalf of Syrian ally President Bashar Assad in recent years. With Islamic State largely defeated in Iraq, Mr. al-Khazali’s men are ready for a new offensive.

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