Iran proxies join forces in shady arrangements

Shadowy ties between Tehran-backed militias in Iraq and Hezbollah have emerged

Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement gather to watch the transmission on a large screen of a speech by the movement's leader Hasan Nasrallah in the Lebanese capital Beirut's souther suburbs on August 31, 2019.  Nasrallah said today y his Lebanese movement's response to a recent drone attack on the group's Beirut stronghold had been "decided". / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
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From Lebanon to South America, Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, the worldwide reach of Hezbollah has been extensively covered in these pages. For decades, the terror-listed group has woven a global web of dedicated supporters and financiers, proving that it will stop at nothing to raise money, whether this means establishing business links with South American drug cartels or profiting from fundraisers in war-torn Yemen, where a Houthi radio station claimed to have collected Dh1.1 million for Hezbollah since last year, at a time when eight out of 10 Yemenis are reliant on humanitarian assistance, most of which has been pledged by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

And this week, The National has uncovered Hezbollah's intricate ties with Iranian proxies that have wreaked havoc in Iraq. Samir Berro, a Lebanese man wanted by the US for allegedly supplying drones to Hezbollah, was also found to be linked to Iraqi politicians and militia leaders. Berro created an aviation company called Gulf Bird in 2007, in partnership with Shibl Al Zaydi, an Iraqi militant sanctioned by the US for supporting Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Gulf Bird also holds Sami Al Askari, a former Iraqi MP, within its ranks. The shadowy company never applied for the certification needed to operate aircraft, and its board of directors has not made any filings since its creation. But with at least three of its co-founders linked to Tehran-backed proxies, including Al Zaydi, who owns 49 per cent of Gulf Bird's shares and has allegedly conducted illicit activities in Lebanon, these revelations have shed light on Hezbollah's murky dealings with Iraqi militants, chief of them Al Zaydi.

He was affiliated to Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which he was expelled from in 2008 only to create his own militia six years later, the Tehran-funded Kataib Al Imam Ali. The armed group is one of many that form the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a powerful coalition of mostly Iran-backed militant militias that partook in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

It is no surprise that Hezbollah and the PMF would co-operate. Both are backed by Tehran and active in Syria’s civil war alongside Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

Both Hezbollah and the PNF are militant groups that at one point, helped to rid their countries of malevolent forces only to use these past achievements as an excuse to bear arms and push for Iran's agenda

They are also both militant groups which, at one point, helped to rid their countries of malevolent forces - Israel in Lebanon and ISIS in Iraq - only to use these past achievements as an excuse to keep bearing arms and push for Iran’s agenda in their home countries, even as the threat they initially fought against has subsided. And by doing so, they have considerably damaged their own countries’ economies.

As part of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy against Iran, the US has taken action to curb Iran's influence with increased economic sanctions on its institutions and proxies. Just last month, the Lebanese Jammal Trust Bank was targeted by the US Treasury for transferring money to Hezbollah. The banking sector is vital to Lebanon’s ailing economy and Hezbollah’s financiers are putting it in jeopardy. Meanwhile, in Iraq, PMF arms depots have been allegedly attacked by Israel, adding additional risks to Iraq’s security.

Tehran-backed groups in Iraq and Lebanon have embedded themselves so deeply in the nations' political and financial lives that it is difficult to impose sanctions on these groups without affecting the whole country’s economy. A more sophisticated approach is needed to regulate their shady financial dealings and this can only be achieved if the Iraqi and Lebanese states are in turn empowered to reclaim a national sovereignty challenged by foreign-backed groups.