Hizballah's Long Reach Into Iraq

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The prisoner initially pretended to be deaf and mute when U.S. interrogators questioned him. For weeks after his capture in March in the southern city of Basra, he persisted with the ruse, even though the Americans suspected him of being a key player in the Jan. 20 attack on U.S . forces in Karbala that left five soldiers dead. But eventually he cracked and began talking, revealing glimpses into the shifting world of Shi'ite militias in Iraq.

The captive's name is Ali Musa Daqduq. American military officials say he is a senior operative from Hizballah, the Shi'ite militia of Lebanon. According to the Americans, Daqduq joined Hizballah in 1983 and rose through the ranks to impressive heights. Then, in 2005, his superiors sent him on a journey to Iran to work with the Quds Force, an elite Iranian paramilitary organization known around the Middle East for its terrorist activities. The Iranian regime has long been a patron of Hizballah and its activities in Lebanon. In Tehran, Daqduq allegedly received orders from Quds Force leaders to settle in Iraq and ramp up training of Shi'ite militia fighters in order to create special "cells" of skilled guerrillas. "What is I think clear is Iran's interest in things like the Lebanon model as a method of preserving strategic influence in areas that are of importance to them," says Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the acting commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. "That's the bane of the Middle East, and it's also the fingerprint of Iranian statecraft. And so we see that emerging here, just as we saw it emerge in Lebanon."

Daqduq is not alone, say U.S. military officials and others who keep tabs on Iran's activities in Iraq. According to the People's Mujaheddin Organization of Iran (PMOI), a longtime opposition group to the regime in Tehran, as many as 500 Hizballah operatives are at work training militiamen at the behest of Iran. The PMOI, which claims to have an extensive intelligence network, says most of the Hizballah operatives are serving as trainers or assistant trainers to the Mahdi Army, the Shi'ite militia of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Brooks says the PMOI assessment seems plausible based on U.S. intelligence. "It wouldn't surprise me," Brooks said. "Evidence of their presence has been here for some time." Brooks said sophisticated kidnapping operations in Iraq and high-tech bombs of the kind Hizballah has been known to use in Lebanon are signs that the group is increasingly a part of the militia scene here. Brooks said that over the past two years Iraqi militia fighters have noticeably increased their destructive capacities against American forces, and he attributed the transformation to the presence of Hizballah and other guerrilla trainers in Iraq under the direction of the Quds Force. "I think it elevated the lethality of the militias for sure," Brooks said of the Hizballah presence. "They are absolutely some of the world's best in terms of terrorist tactics."

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker today echoed the concerns after meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad. "The fact is, and we made it very clear in today's talks, that over roughly two months we have actually seen militia- related activities that can be attributed to Iranian support go up and not down," Crocker said after talks with Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi on security issues in Iraq. Iran has consistently denied accusations of training and arming militants in Iraq.