This week it finally happened. Hizbullah has come out of the closet and launched a full-scale military campaign against US-led forces in Iraq.
Two weeks after the US shelved its sanctions against Hizbullah sponsor Syria, and as the US remains silent in the face of increased Iranian assertiveness in advancing the mullocracy's Manhattan Project, the cat jumped out of the bag.
Ushering in his fight against the US, Hizbullah-Iranian front man Moqtada al-Sadr told his followers last Friday, "I am the striking arm for Hizbullah and Hamas in Iraq because the fate of Iraq and Palestine is the same." Under the spell of Sadr's call to "terrorize" the Americans, Shi'ite militiamen launched attacks in several cities at once.
Militarily, the results have been mixed but have served to cause a political maelstrom by spooking US coalition partners into reconsidering their involvement in Iraq.
Hizbullah's appearance in Iraq is not a surprise. Although Sadr's offensive has been sudden, it followed a year-long buildup of Hizbullah's organizational, propaganda, and military apparatuses in Iraq.
In the weeks before the US-led invasion last March, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah was already calling for suicide bombings against US forces in the event that they went through with the invasion. Shortly after the fall of Saddam's regime, Hizbullah opened offices in Basra and Safwan.
While press coverage of Sadr has portrayed him as a young firebrand who acts autonomously, his connections to Hizbullah and to Iran are long-standing. Nasrallah is personally tied to Sadr's family. In 1976, he studied under Sadr's father Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in Najaf. Back in Lebanon, Nasrallah joined the Shi'ite Amal militia when it was led by its founder, Sadr's uncle Musa.
Aside from his personal ties to Nasrallah, Sadr takes his direction from Ayatollah Haeri, one of the most ardent extremists in Iranian ruling circles. And on the family level, Sadr's aunt is reportedly the first lady of Iran, Mrs. Muhammad Khatami. Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly comprise the backbone of Sadr's fighting force.
At the same time that Hizbullah, like Sadr, was establishing itself in post-Saddam Iraq, mysterious terrorists were systematically killing moderate Shi'ite clerics who were working with the US. First came the April 2003 assassination of Abdul Majid al-Khoei and Haider Kelidar in the Ali Mosque in Najaf. Sadr is the chief suspect in Khoei's murder. Then in August, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim was murdered outside the same mosque. Both Khoei and Hakim were considered moderates who wished for a secular, multiethnic Iraq to succeed Saddam's dictatorship.
Interestingly, each time another pro-coalition Shi'ite leader has been killed, Nasrallah has studiously called for civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites to be averted at all cost. This message became almost hysterical in the aftermath of the attack on Shi'ite worshipers in Karbala and Baghdad during the Ashoura holiday in early March; 140 worshipers were killed in the bombings.
The day of the bombings, Nasrallah took to the airwaves on Hizbullah TV's Al-Manar satellite network and called for calm at all costs. Referring to Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian strife as "a strategic danger," he alleged a "conspiracy" to sow hatred between the two groups and insinuated that the Mossad had something to do with the bombings.
In the same address, Nasrallah attacked the Sunni Taliban, claiming they had killed more Sunnis than Shi'ites during their period in power in Afghanistan. He argued that because of their murderousness towards fellow Muslims, the Taliban were responsible for the US takeover of the country and the establishment of a pro-American government that stands opposed to jihad. A similar event, he argued, must be prevented from occurring in Iraq.
Michael Ledeen, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, explained that defeating US-led forces in Iraq is the top priority for Teheran and, by extension, its terrorist proxies. "For Iran, the struggle against the US in Iraq is an existential struggle."
Echoing Nasrallah's speech, Ledeen said, "If Iraq is able to achieve stability under a democratic, secular government, after the same has happened in Afghanistan, the Iranian regime is finished."
The main reason that Hizbullah constitutes a danger of a new order to the US-led occupation forces is because it has succeeded in a way that no other group has in unifying the terrorist forces operating in Iraq in the common cause of defeating coalition forces. It is in this vein that Sadr's call for unity between Palestinian and Iraqi terror groups becomes understandable.
The Palestinians, as Saddam's favorite cause, were historically despised by the Iraqi Shi'ites whom Saddam brutally oppressed. Indeed, immediately after Saddam's downfall last spring, the Iraqi Governing Authority threw Palestinians out of their state-supplied apartments throughout the country as punishment for their support for Saddam.
Embracing the Palestinian cause is a way of building bridges to the Sunni groups that are battling coalition forces in Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi. At least in Ramadi, this unity is further advanced by the participation of Hizbullah's good friends the Syrians in the fighting.
Iran itself is well placed to project pan-Islamic unity over the issue of Israel. Since 2000, it has become the largest sponsor of Palestinian terror groups, surpassing Saddam's largesse by leaps and bounds even though the Palestinians are Sunnis.
Islamic Jihad has always been an Iranian group. Even before the Palestinian terror war began in September 2000, Iran began making overtures toward Fatah. They blossomed into a full-blown sponsorship after the Iranian arms ship Karine-A was intercepted in January 2002.
Iran has also picked up the slack in Saudi financing of Hamas, and it is now estimated that it finances at least half of the group's $30 million annual budget. No doubt, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's decision to officially bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad into his government was influenced by Iranian dominance of all three organizations.
Aside from Hizbullah's ability to unify the forces fighting the coalition, it is a threat of a new magnitude because Nasrallah is the world master of terrorist warfare. With Syrian and Iranian military sponsorship, he successfully trapped Israel into abandoning the initiative in the fighting in southern Lebanon. Through a nefarious mix of terror, propaganda, negotiations, and blackmail, he forced the government to accept a low-intensity conflict it could not shape through offensive strikes.
Nasrallah made brilliant use of psychological warfare against us. He was able to convince Israel to cut and run by playing to our worst fear as a nation: that we were fighting a pointless and unnecessary war.
He did so by carefully orchestrating terror attacks at key political junctures and by convincing influential Israeli constituencies that our actions in Lebanon were futile and pointless, and therefore our losses were self-inflicted. These constituencies were then galvanized to act unwittingly as Hizbullah's representatives to the nation as a whole.
The Israeli experience with Hizbullah, and the fact that Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and the Palestinians are now actively supporting and involving themselves in operations against the coalition ought to lead US policymakers to base their current and future actions, both military and political, on an understanding of Hizbullah's mode of operation and on the limitations to its operations.
Hizbullah's operations are limited first and foremost by the fact that it lacks the ability to defeat co
nventional forces militarily. Because of this, it operates in a manner it believes will induce demoralization of coalition members. Militarily this will translate into an attempt to induce a constant low-level bloodletting that will lend the impression of chaos and inability to achieve order and stability.
As Ledeen notes, the US should not expect a sudden offensive, an "October surprise," immediately before the presidential elections. Rather, "the US should expect an April surprise, a May surprise, a June, July, August, September surprise, an October, and a November surprise."
By playing on the US fear that victory is impossible to achieve, that, as Sadr said, Iraq will become "another Vietnam," Hizbullah will seek to convince enough Americans that staying is pointless to force George W. Bush out of office and force a retreat of US forces from Iraq. This would be achieved to greatest effect if a sense of chaos and futility can be conveyed to the American people watching the violence on their television screens.
To combat this effort, it is vital for the administration not to lose control of the tone of the public debate either in Iraq or in the US. The decision to close Sadr's newspaper was of crucial importance for this reason. As Sadr's militia is publishing its announcements on Hizbullah's Al-Manar satellite network, arresting Al-Manar reporters and blocking the station from Iraqi television would also be a vital move.
Domestically, political opponents, like Sens. Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd, should be placed on the defensive for buying into Hizbullah's psychological warfare in repeating the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam.
Hizbullah also operates under a second limitation. It cannot fight unless it is clear to its state sponsors in Damascus and Teheran that its battle will not place their national interests in danger. If the US agrees, as Israel did, to limit its fight against the terrorists to the battlefield of their choosing, while appeasing their sponsors on other fronts, Hizbullah will fight on forever.
Because of this, US inaction on the issue of Iran's nuclear weapons program, like its decision to hold up sanctions against Syria, is self-defeating. Similarly, the distinction made by the administration between the jihad against Israel, which can be appeased, and the jihad against the US, which must be defeated, is both unsustainable and destructive.
In Hizbullah, the US has found a dangerous and cunning foe. Hizbullah, together with its state sponsors, strives to reenact against the US in Iraq its success against Israel in Lebanon. The US must make sure not to repeat Israel's mistakes. If it avoids Israel's mistakes, the US will ensure its eventual success in bringing stability and freedom to Iraq and score an enormous victory in the war on terror as a whole.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.