A week ago, justice of sorts was meted out to those suspected of being behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005; one member of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia was charged with the crime and three others were acquitted. Although the result of that UN trial was not the shockwave that many had hoped for, in that it did not hold Hezbollah directly responsible for the killing, it was hailed as at least one step closer to justice for the renowned statesman.
Just days after that verdict, however, another assassination took place in Iraq, where an activist named Reham Yacoub was gunned down in Basra. The suspects are also members of an Iran-backed Shia militia, probably Lebanon’s Iraqi counterpart Kataib Hezbollah. The murder sent shockwaves across the country and its vulnerable community of journalists and activists, especially since it came a month after the well-known political analyst Hisham Al-Hashimi was also assassinated, allegedly by the same group.
Azhar Al-Rubaie, a Basra-based journalist who was a friend of Yacoub, told Middle East Monitor that the killing was meant as a warning to the recently-appointed Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi who was visiting the US on the same day. “[As he landed] for his first foreign visit to Washington DC, militias reactivated and killed… Reham Yacoub to send a message to [the] US that Al-Kadhimi is failing to run Iraq’s security,” claimed Al-Rubaie.
The recent assassinations, as well as Hariri’s 15 years ago, mirror the rise of Iran-backed Shia militias in the region from Lebanon to Iraq. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is by far the most prominent.
Since its foundation in the 1980s as a resistance movement against the Israeli occupation and its Christian Maronite proxies in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has grown to become a dynamic and increasingly important player in Lebanese society and politics. It has expanded beyond its militant roots and now has a prominent political wing.
Its expansion into the political sphere culminated in the election of Christian President Michel Aoun in 2016, who is allied with Hezbollah, and enabled two of the group’s members to enter parliament with 15 of its political allies appointed to government posts. This, effectively, presented the image that it could take part in the democratic process legitimately.
1Such political success, added to its possession of an estimated 130,000 rockets and missiles, as well as tens of thousands of fighters, has made Hezbollah the most powerful non-state actor in the world. That is not even counting its supporters in the West, where governments have largely overlooked the group’s influence and presence until earlier this year when the German authorities banned it and raided mosques with which it is affiliated.
Despite the democratic image, though, the group has failed to integrate with the Lebanese Armed Forces and to disarm itself, defying demands by the US and the UN to do so. Instead, it has infiltrated the Lebanese authorities and security services so that they comply with Hezbollah’s own interests and overlook its actions. This was noticeable in reports of the militia’s secret black sites across Lebanon and its kidnapping and torture of journalists and critics who threatened to expose its wrongdoings. The latter even included the son of one its deceased leaders.
Over the years, Hezbollah militants and members have fired on crowds of protestors – without facing any repercussions from the Lebanese security forces – who were against the group and its influence in Lebanon. There are also reports that the Lebanese Armed Forces are unable to enter Shia-majority areas and villages, particularly in the south, without permission from the militia or a Hezbollah escort.
There is a similar situation in Iraq, where Kataib Hezbollah has entered the political sphere by participating in parliamentary elections following the territorial defeat of Daesh. With its leading role in the political alliance of Shia militias called the Fatih Alliance, Kataib Hezbollah has succeeded in winning the second highest number of votes for Iraq’s parliament.
The same calls have been made for the militia to disarm itself and integrate with the Iraqi military under the Ministry of Defence, with former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi issuing a decree last year for all Iran-backed groups under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to become an “indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations.” Rather than complying, Kataib Hezbollah ignored his warning that they would be seen as outlaws and simply continued to fire on protestors and started to assassinate critics.
These militias’ military capabilities coupled with their new-found political influence have caused many to view them as states within states, undermining the sovereignty of both Lebanon and Iraq. “Militias are stronger than the government, they have weapons, IDs to cross checkpoints, [and] also have support from Iran,” Al-Rubaie told MEMO.
Despite these obstacles, over the past few months since Al-Kadhimi took over from Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq has revived the hope of those desiring reforms and the checking of the power of the Iran-backed militias in the region. The new Prime Minister has, for example, made efforts to crack down on some of the prominent militias, as evidenced by the security forces’ raid at the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah in June and the arrest of several members.
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s visit to the US last week to meet President Donald Trump was also proof of that, as well as his visit to the son of Al-Hashimi and family of Yacoub following their murders. How far the Iraqi Prime Minister will be willing to go in limiting the power and influence of the Iran-backed militias in his country, and whether they would pose enough of a threat to his government, still remains unclear. What is certain, though, is that critics of their influence have every reason to fear for their lives.
Lebanon, on the other hand, is now suffering from a severe lack of leadership following the Beirut explosion and the resignation of the entire government, meaning that Hezbollah is free to operate with neither limits nor restrictions. The remaining Lebanese leadership has not taken any steps to rein-in the group or even question its possible involvement in the blast or the corruption that led to it. President Aoun has said, somewhat conveniently, that it is “impossible” for Hezbollah to have any responsibility for the explosion that devastated the capital city.
Both Lebanon and Iraq, with varying degrees of resistance, have fallen into the firm grip of the Iran-backed Shia militias by allowing their military presence and granting them political legitimacy. In order to take back control they must either remove them from the political sphere and any political representation whatsoever, or force them to disarm and be absorbed into the national armed forces. Disarmament is unlikely; Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah insisted in June that such efforts would be “useless”. The status quo thus looks set to remain, with both Lebanon and Iraq fighting an uphill battle to reclaim their national sovereignty.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.