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Lebanon's Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militants following Soleimani's killing

Hezbollah has considerably expanded its role in the region [AFP]

Date of publication: 12 February, 2020

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Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah has been meeting with Iraqi militia leaders, seeking to unite them in the face of a huge void left by Soleimani's death.

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hebzollah group met with Iraqi militia leaders in the wake of the death of their powerful mentor and top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

The meetings sought to unite and coordinate political efforts of Iraq's mostly divided militias, which lost both Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a US strike earlier this year.

The Lebanese group, which is sanctioned as a terrorist organisation by the US, is helping fill the void left by Soleimani to help guide pro-Tehran Iraqi militias, Reuters reported citing anonymous sources.

Hezbollah's "guidance of the militias would continue until the new leadership in the Quds Force gets a handle on the political crisis in Iraq", Reuters reported a pro-Iran regional official as saying.

Soleimani, who was head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, ran Iran's overseas military operations and was Tehran's pointman on Iraqi affairs.

Muhandis was the deputy head of the Hashd al-Shaabi - or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) - a loose network of paramilitary groups formed in 2014 to fight jihadists that has since been absorbed into the Iraqi state.

Read also: Israeli intel helped the US assassinate Soleimani: report

He, Soleimani and eight others were killed in the 3 January US strike outside Baghdad's International Airport that Iraq's government slammed as a violation of its sovereignty.

Muhandis was close to Iran and worked with his mentor and friend Soleimani to broker deals among Iraq's fractured political elite.

The US attack outraged Iraq's parliament and led it to swiftly voted to oust all foreign forces, a longstanding demand of the PMF and its political arm, Fatah.

Some 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq, leading the international coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group. 

Growing role of Hezbollah

In recent years, Hezbollah has considerably expanded its role in the region.

The group, led by its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, has fought in support of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and extended political support to the Iran-allied Houthis of Yemen in their war with a Saudi-led military alliance.

Iran will likely rely on Nasrallah to oversee its regional allies, a US official told Reuters.

"I think ideologically, religiously, he's seen as a charismatic figure to many of the Iraqi Shia militias," the US official said.

In two lengthy televised addresses, the Hezbollah head paid homage to Soleimani and vowed to avenge his death.

On Sunday, Nasrallah said the US army will "pay the price" for killing Soleimani and Muhandis.

"The American army killed them and it will pay the price," he said.

"The only just punishment is (to target) American military presence in the region: US military bases, US warships, each and every officer and soldier in the region."

Nasrallah also called on Iraq to free itself of the American "occupation".

"Our demand, our hope from our brothers in the Iraqi parliament is... to adopt a law that demands American forces withdraw from Iraq," he said.

Earlier on Sunday, Hezbollah news outlet Al-Manar published undated photos of Nasrallah and Soleimani, including one in which the Iranian commander kisses Nasrallah's forehead.

In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, Soleimani said he had been in Lebanon during the 34-day 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the fighting.

Hezbollah is the only side not to have disarmed after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

While the US has designated the group as a "terrorist" organisation and put several of its figures on sanctions, the party is also a key player in Lebanese politics.

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