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TEHRAN’S TURN: Hezbollah: Iran’s Middle East Agent, Emissary and Hammer

War Without Borders

Hezbollah has become active in so many places and against so many enemies that detractors have mocked it as “the Blackwater of Iran,” after the infamous American mercenary firm.

The consequences are clear far from Hezbollah’s home turf.

In an expanding graveyard in the Iraqi city of Najaf, a militia fighter, Hussein Allawi, pointed out the headstones of comrades killed abroad. Some of the graves were decorated with plastic flowers and photos of the dead.

“This one is from Syria, that one is from Syria — we have a lot from Syria,” Mr. Allawi said.

Many had begun their careers as he did. After joining a militia, he received military training in Iraq. His most experienced trainers were from Hezbollah.

In recent years, much of the world has focused on the Sunni jihadists who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. But less attention has been paid as Iran fired up its own operation, recruiting, training and deploying fighters from across the Shiite world.

At the heart of that effort, Hezbollah has taken on increasingly senior roles in ventures once reserved for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — the force that helped create Hezbollah itself.

In Iraq, Iran has redeployed militias originally formed to battle American troops to fight the Islamic State. It has also recruited Afghan refugees to fight for a militia called the Fatemiyoun Brigade. And it has organized a huge airlift of fighters to fight for Mr. Assad in Syria. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps provides the infrastructure, while commanders from Iran and Hezbollah focus on training and logistics.

Militiamen interviewed in Iraq described how they had registered at recruitment offices for Iranian-backed militias to fight the Islamic State. Some were trained in Iraq, while others went to Iran for 15 days of drills before flying to Syria to fight. More experienced fighters took advanced courses with Iranian and Hezbollah commanders in Iran or Lebanon.

Iran rallied the combatants with cash and religious appeals, effectively pitting one international jihad against another.

For Ali Hussein, an Iraqi high school dropout, the battle began after the Islamic State stormed into northern Iraq in 2014 and he went to the recruitment office of an Iranian-backed militia to sign up to fight the jihadists.

But first, Mr. Hussein was told, he had to fight in neighboring Syria, against rebels seeking to topple the government. He agreed and was promptly launched into an extensive, Iranian-built network of loyal militants scattered across the Middle East.

He was bused to Iran with other recruits and airlifted to Syria, where he received military training and lectures about holy war. After a month on the front lines, he returned to Iraq with $ 1,000 and a newfound ideological fervor.

“I want to continue fighting jihad until victory or martyrdom,” he said.

Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who studies militant groups, said more than 10,000 Iraqi fighters were in Syria during the battle for Aleppo last year, in addition to thousands from other countries.

Officers from Iran coordinated the ground forces with the Syrian military and the Russian air force while Hezbollah provided Arabic-speaking field commanders, the fighters said.

Iraqi militia leaders defended their role in Syria, saying they went to protect holy sites and fight terrorists at the request of the Syrian government.

“If anyone asks why we went to Syria, ask them what allowed the Americans to occupy countries,” said Hashim al-Musawi, a spokesman for an Iraqi militia active in Syria. “We didn’t sneak in, we entered through the door.”

Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have surfaced on Iraq’s battlefields, too.

Ali Kareem Mohammed, an Iraqi militia sniper, recalled a battle with the Islamic State in central Iraq when the jihadists kept sending armored cars filled with explosives that his comrades’ weapons could not stop. They called for help, and a group of Lebanese fighters brought advanced antitank missiles.

“Everyone knew they were Hezbollah,” Mr. Mohammed said. “If anyone came with a suicide car, they would hit it.”

Today, his group uses the same missiles without Hezbollah’s help, he said.

Source: NYT > World

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