The Last Prisoner: A senior Hezbollah commander captured in Iraq raises questions about the future of its shadow war with Iran

December 19, 2011

It’s a simple question, really. In war, do we have the right- or obligation- to act preemptively or are we bound to deal with crimes and atrocities after the fact as we do in criminal cases?

The question is not academic or ethereal. As we leave Iraq, the last prisoner will be turned over to the Iraqis. That prisoner, a Hizbollah operative was responsible for the capture and summary execution of American soldiers and other civilians. 

The Iraqis are preparing to turn him loose and he is expected to head back to Beirut pick up where he left off.

Foreign Policy:

On a blustery winter afternoon last year, a colleague and I were driving around southeastern Lebanon, trying to imagine how the next round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel would play out. We had the good fortune to have a mutual source — a midlevel Hezbollah commander — along with us on the trip, so we could pump him for insight into this seemingly inevitable conflict.

It was an interesting day, but our road-trip partner was hardly a source of pithy quotes. Keeping with Hezbollah’s reputation for taciturn observation, he told us almost nothing about the group. He did, however, help us understand the terrain and possible tactics both sides would use in another round of fighting, which everyone in the car assumed would be more widespread and nastier than the destructive monthlong war in the summer of 2006.

As we drove through the eastern Beqaa Valley, through the low mountain passes and craggy valleys, we eventually turned north to head back to Beirut and passed the tiny village of Majdal Anjar.

To close observers of Lebanon’s occasionally goofy, if deadly, sectarian violence, the rural outpost of Majdal Anjar is a famous emblem of something fairly rare in Lebanon: serious Sunni jihadists. Close to the main commercial crossing with Syria, it’s a noted smuggling center for everything from weapons to cheap diesel fuel as the local families and tribes cross back and forth over the border with near impunity, either bribing local officials or following smuggler tracks that have been in use since the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Majdal Anjar mixed smuggling and Sunni extremism to become one of Lebanon’s main thoroughfares for sending foreign fighters to fight U.S. soldiers in Iraq during the heyday of al Qaeda’s insurgency there. The village sent numerous young men to fight alongside al Qaeda commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from 2003 to 2006 and helped send scores more from other Lebanese Sunni enclaves such as Tripoli and the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh.

As we passed the village, frustrated by the little news I was getting out of sitting in a car for hours with a guy who knows enough for me to write a book or two on Hezbollah, I baited him with a loaded question.

“So, who sent more people to Iraq?” I playfully asked. “Dahiyeh [Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold] or Majdal Anjar?”

“Majdal Anjar, of course,” he responded with a glint of minor irritation at the stupidity of the question. “We didn’t send boys to Iraq.”

Maybe not, but the Americans would beg to differ. The case of Ali Musa Daqduq — who was the last prisoner in U.S. custody in Iraq before being transferred to Baghdad’s control on Dec. 16 — has been a prime example used by the United States of Hezbollah’s influence in Iraq, and a major headache for President Barack Obama.

The U.S. military has accused Daqduq, a Shiite Lebanese national, of being a Hezbollah operative sent to Iraq by Iran to help run a cell of insurgents dubbed the “Special Groups.” These insurgents, American military officials claim, conducted very professional attacks on U.S. forces on behalf of Shiite groups and orchestrated mayhem directly on behalf of handlers in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

As the United States prepares to wrap up its nightmarish experience in Iraq by the end of the year, Daqduq’s fate has posed a particularly nasty problem for the White House. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the United States has held discussions about his fate “at the highest levels,” and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes.

While the terms of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement gave the Obama administration few options other than to turn Iraqi prisoners over to their government, there is good reason to believe that Iraq’s Shiite leaders will set Daqduq free. He is, after all, a Shiite Lebanese national with apparent ties to a militant group that enjoys a close ideological relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party.

It’s pretty clear Daqduq will quickly make his way back to Beirut — never seeing the inside of an Iraqi courtroom. And after fighting for more than eight hard years in Iraq, what sort of victory can the United States claim if the government it installed is willing to set free a man with American blood on his hands?

Daqduq either consulted with or led a secretive group of Shiite militants that conducted a series of extremely effective attacks on U.S. troops in 2006 and 2007, including a brazen infiltration of a U.S. base in Karbala by commandos dressed as U.S. troops. In that January 2007 attack, the insurgents kidnapped and eventually executed five U.S. soldiers. Captured by U.S. Special Forces in southern Iraq on May 20, 2007, alongside two Iraqi brothers, Qais and Laith al-Khazali, Daqduq played deaf and mute for months under interrogation before finally admitting he was Lebanese and, according to U.S. officials, a senior Hezbollah commander. All three were considered the ringleaders of the Karbala attack. U.S. officials also blamed their group, the “League of Righteousness,” for a series of other attacks, bombings, and kidnappings throughout southern Iraq and Baghdad.

The fate of the two Khazali brothers loomed large over the Obama administration’s decision-making regarding Daqduq. After being transferred to Iraqi custody in the summer of 2009, they were quickly released by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces and judiciary and have since disappeared. If history repeats itself with Daqduq, it would mark a particularly sour note for the Iraq war to end on — and seeing him return home to a hero’s welcome might be more than the Obama administration can bear in the run-up to an election year.

Some members of the military and U.S. intelligence services described Daqduq as a hardened terrorist who needed to be transferred to a military tribunal — or even the ultimate bugbear of the “war on terror”: Guantánamo Bay. Shutting down the infamous prison camp is already one of Obama’s failed campaign promises, though, and adding a Lebanese Shiite captured in Iraq to that already tainted and embarrassing mix hardly would have look good…

Read it all.

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