Iran is for the first time running openly with an initiative for manipulating the chronic Arab-Israeli conflict. This intervention has added a broader regional dimension to the two local warfronts centering on the kidnap of three Israeli soldiers in two separate assaults.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts trace Iran’s first modest step to a couple of relatively minor terrorists incidents in Baghdad and Basra on July 4, eight days before Hizballah commandos stormed into Israel, abducted 2 Israeli soldiers and killed eight more.
This assault, which Israel branded an act of war by Lebanon, has set the entire region by the ears. Less than three weeks after Israel launched a ground offensive against the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, its air force is smashing strategic targets across Lebanon; and the Arab world is split down the middle between the radical bloc headed by Syrian president Bashar Asad and Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and the moderate camp headed by Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
(See separate article in this issue)
The onset of this Iranian maneuver is traced to that critical July 4 by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive counter terror sources. On that day, for the first time in the three-year Iraq War, Nasrallah activated the sleeper terror and sabotage networks established by Iranian and Hizballah intelligence across Iraq. He was obeying orders reaching him from Iranian supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in person.
The networks were planted by the shadowy Imad Mughniyeh, the Shiite Palestinian terror and hijack master who has been working for the last 25 years in the service of Iran, Hizballah and al Qaeda.
Mughniyeh’s skills extend to his ability to catch his victims unawares and change his appearance so that he remains faceless after almost three decades on America’s most wanted terrorist list.
He arrived in Iraq in May 2003, a month after the fall of Baghdad, and stayed there till early 2004 assembling a terrorist-guerrilla underground movement parallel to the Hizballah militia in Lebanon. Five thousand trained men were brought in to man the cells. They were armed with weapons and cash from Tehran. Iranian undercover agents kept the network in a good state of maintenance.
Hizballah spreads its wings in Iraq
DEBKA-Net-Weekly was alone in revealing the terrorist outfit Mughniyeh created in Iraq at the behest of Iranian leaders, tracking him from arrival in Iraq to his departure.
For three years, the Hizballah network Mughniyeh fashioned remained buried and inert, held in reserve by Tehran as its ultimate weapon for taking the Americans and British by surprise.
America’s Day of Independence 2006 was selected for the first low-key attacks. They were staged against American forces in Baghdad and British units in Basra and marked the surfacing of a Shiite group they had never heard of: The Abu al Fadal al Abas Brigades.
This debut, announced on videotape and in written statements, was designed more for its impact on the Shiite community than the damage it caused. In documenting its first attacks, the group announced its sole mission as being to fight American and British forces in Iraq, but on no account to join the sectarian civil war raging in Iraq or harm any Iraqis at all.
The name assumed by the new group had an electric effect on Shiites everywhere.
They deeply revere Abu al Fadel al Abas, the young brother of the Imam Hossein’s military commander, as a larger-than-life figure, much as Americans once admired General MacArthur, the British, Fieldmarshall Montgomery and the Israelis, General Moshe Dayan.
The Islamic Republic made no effort to conceal its sponsorship of the Abu al Fadal al Abas Brigades founded by Hizballah in Iraq or its goals.
Its emergence as the potent new force in Iraq was trumpeted first by Hizballah’s television network Al Manar, which rarely airs Sunni insurgent operations or even those performed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi when he was alive.
The broadcast on July 7 recorded four Abu al Fadal al-Abbas Brigades operations against US forces in Iraq and went on to link them to the forthcoming assault on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.
The communique stated: The mission of the Abu al Fadal al-Abbas Brigades is to liberate Iraq from American occupation, just as Hizballah’s objective is to liberate Lebanon from Israeli occupation (sic). Just as the Brigades adherents never attack their Iraqi brothers, so too Hizballah does not harm its Lebanese brothers.
The public announcement told every Shiite in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East that a fresh, virile savior had landed in the middle of the Iraqi mess, capable of rising above the bloody internecine conflict drowning Iraq and focusing on the goal that unites them all, the expulsion of foreign occupiers from Middle East soil.
The Shiites celebrated, but Washington took the appearance of the new terror group to mean that Tehran had put its foot on the ground in Iraq and was in position to escalate its attacks to the point of a full-blown military confrontation between the Iranian-backed HIzballah network and US-UK contingents in the country.
Tehran loses its fear of the Bush White House
Tehran’s timing was influenced by a number of factors;
1. The Bush administration’s domestic weakness and predicaments and its lax handling of the negotiating impasse over the Iranian nuclear program, convinced Tehran that Washington has been defeated in its struggle for a UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.
2. Seen from Tehran, Washington backed off from military action against North Korea over its missile tests. The United States failed to obtain international consent for economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
3. Iran sees a falling-off of America and its influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US military situation in Afghanistan is not much better than it is in Iraq. It is perceived as having dropped past the reversible point when past mistakes might still have been corrected. In the two and half years left of the Bush presidency, the situation is expected to go from bad to worse.
4. Since Iran’s evaluation of the situation in Iraq is the same as Afghanistan, the clerical rulers have decided they have nothing to fear from an open intervention in the Shiite arena to take up a strong position before their Iraqi coreligionists sink into the morass of total sectarian war with the Sunni Muslims. Tehran believes its intercession can limit that conflict.
5. The Iraqi Hizballah organization has two tasks in relation to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia. To cut him down to size; today, the Mehdi Army is the largest organized military force in Baghdad, outnumbering the national Iraqi army. (See HOT POINTS).
From Tehran he is seen as getting too big for his boots. The Iranians would like to offer Iraqi Shiites who disapprove of Sadr an acceptable, unifying alternative.
6. Tehran expects the Shiite communities of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait over, which Iran never neglects in its schemes, to take heart from the new Shiite group rising in Iraq as a harbinger of a better future for all Shiites. In fact, a wave of optimism has rippled across those communities.
7. Finally, the Iranians seized their chance to grind their two axes on the same whetstone. The Lebanese terrorist Hizballah was let off the leash for the two missions: making mischief for the Americans in Iraq and manipulating the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The directives Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khomein, handed to Nasrallah set in motion the two coordinated schemes, the first in Iraq on July 4 and the second against Israel on July 12.
Washington and Tehran move into the cockpits
Mughniyeh was again pressed into service to hand down to Hizballah’s special forces his proficiency in the sinister craft of abduction.
Mughniyeh perfected this craft in the 1980s as the dread Shiite hijacker of American and other Western hostages in war-torn Beirut and, later, in engineering the kidnap of three Israeli soldiers from their northern border post in October 2000, the first month of the Palestinian terror war against Israel.
Khameini asked particularly for the operation against Israel to take place within days of the new Shiite terrorist group’s emergence in Iraq – both to double the impact and to cut short any Israeli successes in its clashes with the Hamas in the Gaza.
The Iranians felt they could not afford to stand idle when their Palestinian ally was in danger.
Another important goal for Tehran was to elude recriminations in store over its nuclear activities at the G-8 summit taking place in the Russian city of St. Petersburg on July 15. What better diversion than a Middle East war to mess up President George W. Bush‘s agenda?
Wednesday night, July 12, an Iranian military plane brought national security council chairman the hardline Ali Larijani to Damascus, a step that brought together all Tehran’s irons in the Middle East fire. He was told to stay in the Syrian capital until the crisis was over as insurance against Israel extending its operations in Lebanon to Syria, backer of the Hizballah and host to the Palestinian Hamas’s supreme leader Khaled Meshaal.
Under the terms of the recently-signed Iranian-Syrian mutual defense pact, an attack on Syria would be tantamount to an attack on Iran. But just in case, the Syrian army was placed on the ready, as were Iran’s air and missile forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that the Bush administration countered this move early Thursday, July 13. Undersecretary of State David Welch and the deputy head of the US National Security Council, Elliot Abrams, who happened to be in the Middle East at the time, hurried over to Jerusalem. Like Larijani, they were told to stay put until the war crisis ended.
So the latest Middle East war raging in Lebanon has sprouted behind-the-scenes wire-pullers. It has developed into a duel not just between Israel and Hizballah, but between the national security councils of Iran and the United States, working out of their cockpits in Damascus and Jerusalem.