The Last Prisoner

The fate of a senior Hezbollah commander captured in Iraq raises questions about what the United States accomplished in Mesopotamia -- and the future of its shadow war with Iran.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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.

But if Daqduq posed some thorny questions for the United States, the revelation that he was training Shiite militants and leading attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq does the same for Hezbollah. To better understand how this happened, I went back to the commander who had denied that any of his "boys" had been to Iraq.

In the phone call arranging the meeting, the commander immediately admitted that Daqduq was a Hezbollah commander, even going as far as admitting that he knows his brother well. At our meeting, however, he clearly realized that this conversation was going to be harder to control than some of our previous ones, and he backtracked.

"I’m not saying he is in Hezbollah," he insisted. When I pointed out that he already had done this the day before, he grimaced and repeated his denial again.

I pointed out that it doesn’t matter whether he backtracked. The U.S. government has already declared that it thinks Daqduq is a Hezbollah commander, with 24 years experience, and was leading a group with the backing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. So could we speak hypothetically on what might happen if such a person were transferred to the United States for trial?

"He’s a Lebanese citizen. The Lebanese government has a responsibility to deal with the United States in a legal way on this matter. It’s not an issue for Hezbollah to get involved in," was the response.

I reminded him that this hands-off approach has not always been Hezbollah’s calling card. The organization ferociously conducts operations intended to kidnap Israelis to use as bargaining chips to free Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails. And a Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyeh, is widely thought to have kidnapped multiple Westerners from Lebanon in the 1980s in an effort to get his brother-in-law and other Hezbollah members released from a Kuwaiti jail. Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in a 2008 car bombing in Damascus, Syria, was widely considered by Western intelligence circles to be a top Iranian operative, in addition to being chief of staff of Hezbollah’s military wing — a revelation that only came to light after his assassination, when Hezbollah threw him a full military funeral. And apparently, under orders from Iran, the murky secret war of the 1980s continues today.

"Lebanon doesn’t have relations with Israel, so there’s no formal way to get the return of prisoners. The resistance is forced to conduct these operations itself. Plus, we are at war with Israel and not the United States," he replied, his statements growing increasingly guarded. "So even if he was transferred to America, it would be a problem for the prime minister of Lebanon, not Hezbollah, to decide his fate."

"But if Hezbollah isn’t at war with the United States, what was a top military commander of the group doing in Iraq, attacking American targets?"

He sighed.

"Hezbollah never conducted operations in Iraq against America," he finally said. "And whatever happened in the 1980s would never happen in Lebanon again; we have a religious ruling from our scholars that says targeting Western civilians in Lebanon is forbidden. You know we’re religious men; we take these sort of rulings seriously. No one here would be hurt or kidnapped in response."

We were going in circles, and I wasn’t closer to understanding why Daqduq was in Iraq. But most of the commander’s denials were technically true: The majority of the attacks on American targets, even in Lebanon during the civil war, have never been claimed by Hezbollah, which isn’t shy about admitting to conducting operations against Israel when it suits the group’s interests.

So I laid out a rambling question that has always vexed me about the group: If guys like Mughniyeh and Daqduq are Hezbollah members and part of the "resistance" against Israel, but are also seemingly conducting terrorist-style operations around the world, how can he say they don’t target Western civilians and never have? Or how can Hezbollah’s leadership deny that it was attacking Americans, when at least one member is in custody with apparently decent probable cause for holding him?

"So you admit Imad Mughniyeh was a member of Hezbollah?" I finally asked.

"Yes, of course. You were at his funeral."

"OK," I replied. "Without admitting that Imad did the things that everyone seems to think he did — the Marine barracks and U.S. Embassy bombings in the early 1980s, the kidnapping of Westerners for almost 10 years, even the current accusation that he was involved in the killing of [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri — how am I supposed to see these things and think Hezbollah wasn’t involved at all?"

He paused, and then got rhetorical on me.

"Look. There’s Hezbollah. It’s the Islamic resistance in Lebanon. It fights Israel to liberate and defend Lebanese territory from Israel. That’s all it does. It’s a group of religious fighters in southern Lebanon at war against the Israelis," he began, before picking his words more carefully than I’ve ever seen him in many conversations over the past few years.

"But you’re talking about mukhabarat [intelligence] operations. Let me ask you something: When the Americans want to conduct an operation in Afghanistan against the Taliban, who do they send to gather information? A white guy? Or when the CIA tries to recruit agents in Lebanon against Hezbollah, do they send you? Of course not. They send an Afghan. They send a Lebanese guy. So who would Iran want to use in Iraq? Persians? Or would they recruit Arabs?"

"So hypothetically a guy like Imad Mughniyeh or Ali Musa could be Hezbollah, but what he does — if tasked by Iran — isn’t a Hezbollah operation?" I asked.

"Of course not. We’re the resistance of south Lebanon. What Iran or anyone else does might involve people who want to defend their land here, but they might have another job as well. It’s not the same. Hezbollah did not fight in Iraq. But I don’t know what Iran was doing or why they might send an Arab to do it."

I finally got my answer. Whatever Daqduq was doing in Iraq, even if he was a member of Hezbollah while at home in Lebanon, just isn’t seen as the same thing. It’s an exercise in hairsplitting that would make any lawyer proud. Of course, it won’t mean a thing to the families of the soldiers he’s accused of killing.

At one point during our conversation, my source turned to me with his coal-black eyes, trying to assuage what he thought were my fears. "You’re not worried we’ll kidnap you, are you? It’s forbidden, and I’d get you released anyway."

Good to know. And to be fair, I believe him. In all of our conversations, I’ve never worried that my source in Beirut could one day become my captor. But he’s still the sort of guy who, even when trying to be reassuring, can sound ominous.

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