Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite group, has established a significant presence in Iraq, but is not taking part in attacks on American forces inside the country, according to current and former United States officials and Arabs familiar with the organization.
Iran is believed to be restraining Hezbollah from attacking American troops, and that is prompting a debate within the Bush administration about Iran’s objectives, administration officials said.
Hezbollah’s presence has become a source of concern as it is recognized by counterterrorist experts to have some of the most dangerous operatives in the world.
Both American and Israeli intelligence have found evidence that Hezbollah operatives have established themselves in Iraq, according to current and former United States officials. Separately, Arabs in Lebanon and elsewhere who are familiar with the organization say Hezbollah has sent what they describe as a security team of up to 90 members to Iraq.
The organization has steered clear of attacks on Americans, the American officials and Arabs familiar with Hezbollah agree. United States intelligence officials said Hezbollah operatives were believed to have arrived in Iraq soon after the end of major combat operations last spring, and had refrained from attacks on Americans ever since. The Central Intelligence Agency has not seen a major influx of Hezbollah operatives since that time, officials added.
“Hezbollah has moved to establish a presence inside Iraq, but it isn’t clear from the intelligence reports what their intent is,” one administration official said.
Based in Lebanon, Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamic group that is under Tehran’s control. Syria, which dominates Lebanon and controls Hezbollah’s supply lines from Iran, also plays a powerful role with the group.
Inside Lebanon, Hezbollah has taken on an increasingly political role, but it continues to pose a global threat. The United States has issued a $25 million reward for the capture of Imad Mugniyah, the longtime chief of foreign terrorist operations; he is believed to have been behind a series of attacks against Americans in the 1980’s, including hostage-taking operations in Lebanon.
More recently, Hezbollah has focused its activities on Israel, and is not believed to have launched a large attack against American interests since 1996, when, according to American government charges, it conducted the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans.
In recent months, American troops have faced a deadly guerrilla campaign waged largely by the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party government in the Sunni-dominated region of central Iraq. Some foreign Arab fighters are believed to have infiltrated Iraq, but their role in attacks against American troops now appears to be less significant than United States military and intelligence officials originally believed.
American forces have faced far less violence in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq than they have in the Sunni heartland. The Shiites, though the majority of Iraq’s population, suffered severe oppression under the Sunni-dominated government of Mr. Hussein, and have so far appeared more willing to accept the American military occupation.
But Iran’s role in Iraq’s Shiite community has been a wild card for the Bush administration. Shiite-dominated Iran has a strong interest in influencing the political and religious direction of the country, particularly because some of the Shiite world’s holiest sites are in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf. Iran’s powerful clerical leaders are deeply concerned about which clerics emerge as the dominant figures in those cities, American officials say.
“We are very aware of the rivalry between Iranian Shia and Iraqi Shia for dominance in that community,” one administration official said. “It’s possible that Hezbollah is there to help the Iraqis politically, to work in the Shia community,” and have no plans for terrorist attacks against Americans, the official added.
Another critical concern of the Iranians is the American policy toward the People’s Mujahedeen, an anti-Iranian terrorist group that operated for years on the Iraqi side of the border under the protection of Mr. Hussein’s government.
Since the American occupation of the country, the Bush administration has been deeply divided over how to handle this group. Pentagon officials and conservatives inside and outside the administration have been open to the idea of using it against the Iranians, but State Department officials have argued that the group should be disarmed and rendered ineffective to improve relations with Iran.
Last spring, President Bush ordered that American forces disarm the group, but some administration officials say the Pentagon has purposefully been lax in its treatment of the organization. An administration official said last week that the United States military had allowed some members of the People’s Mujahedeen to enter and leave Iran, and that the group still had equipment for broadcasting its antigovernment messages into Iran.
Earlier this month, in an interview with The Washington Post, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, tried to clarify the administration’s policy toward the anti-Iranian group by insisting that Washington was treating it as terrorist.
But the Iranians remain suspicious about American intentions, and some administration officials speculated that Tehran might be trying to use Hezbollah’s presence in Iraq as a counterweight, to deter the Americans from unleashing the Mujahedeen against Iran.
American officials say they believe that Iran wants to resume the quiet dialogue with the United States that has been suspended in recent months. Earlier this year, Bush administration officials charged that operatives of Al Qaeda in Iran were behind a May 12 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, although American officials subsequently learned that those operatives, including Saef al-Adel, a pivotal Qaeda figure, were in some form of custody in Iran.
More recently, Iran has said it has handed over some Qaeda operatives to other countries, but has been unwilling to turn them over directly to the United States. It is possible, some American officials said, that the Iranians want to resume talks, and that by keeping Hezbollah under wraps, they are quietly sending a conciliatory message to Washington.
“I think it is a little bit of the carrot and the stick,” said one administration official. “They want a dialogue, and they also want to get their hands on” members of the Mujahedeen.
“I think sending Hezbollah to Iraq is about Iran’s desire for us to take them seriously, both in terms of their interests in Iraq and their broader concerns in the Middle East,” observed one former American official familiar with the intelligence reports on Hezbollah’s presence in Iraq. “They want a dialogue with us, and they are signaling they can help us or hurt us.”
November 24, 2003
New York Times
Hezbollah, in Iraq, Refrains From Attacks on Americans
WASHINGTON, Nov. 23