BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities are investigating a visit to south Lebanon by the head of an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group that prompted a response from Prime Minister Saad Hariri over the weekend. A video surfaced last week showing the head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, visiting the south Lebanon-Israel border in military fatigues with members of Hezbollah. In the video, he said that his group was ready to assist in defending Lebanon in the event of any Israeli aggression.
A source from Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Sunday that the security agencies were now investigating the incident.
“General Security and the Lebanese Army are carrying out their responsibilities and this is a given – they don’t need to wait for an order to do so,” the source said.
When asked if there were orders from the presidency to investigate the details behind Khazali’s visit, the source said: “Again, it’s a norm that the security apparatuses look into this incident.”
A military source Sunday said that the Army “has no comment on the incident.”
Khazali’s visit, and the airing of the video on Al Ahad Channel, comes at a delicate time just days after ministers reaffirmed the policy of dissociation leading Hariri to withdraw his resignation.
A second video showing Iraqi group Saraya al-Salam in south Lebanon also emerged Sunday and was reportedly shot in Hasbaya’s Kfar Hammam. However, the local municipality issued a statement saying that the video was old and the security authorities had been informed about it.
On Nov. 4, Hariri made the surprise announcement of his resignation, citing Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and regional conflicts.
Hariri subsequently retracted his resignation on the main condition that an agreement on a new dissociation policy be reached. This was eventually endorsed by Cabinet on Dec. 5.
The video of Khazali visiting the south with members of Hezbollah surfaced shortly after United States President Donald Trump recognized occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel Wednesday.
Hariri Saturday denounced Khazali’s comments and his visit, calling for an investigation into the incident to be opened.
“It constitutes a violation of Lebanese law and I contacted the military and security leaders concerned to conduct the necessary investigations and take measures,” Hariri said, according to a statement from his office.
“The video was filmed six days ago and constitutes a violation of Lebanese law,” he added.
Hariri contacted military and security leaders concerned to conduct the necessary investigations and take measures to prevent any person or party from carrying out foreign military activity on Lebanese territory, the statement reported.
“Measures should be taken to prevent any illegal acts as is shown in the video and prevent the person involved from entering Lebanon,” he said, indicating that Khazali will be banned from making future visits to the country.
Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, has reportedly claimed over 6,000 attacks against U.S. forces, including some of the most sophisticated roadside bombings, and American officials designated the group as the biggest single threat to U.S. forces in Iraq before their withdrawal in 2011, the Washington Post newspaper reported in 2013.
But Asaib Ahl al-Haq was quick to respond to Hariri Saturday, saying that Khazali’s visit was in a show of support. The group hit back at the premier, claiming that his position was in line with “Zionist media.”
It added that Hariri’s statement aimed at diverting attention and disrupting facts.
“[Khazali’s] visit to Lebanon was made [legally] and using an Iraqi passport. As for the military fatigues he wore, it was to express solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian people against a common enemy for Islam and humanity that is embodied in the Zionist entity,” the group said.Asaib Ahl al-Haq added that the visit also reflected the group’s readiness to stand with Lebanon against the Israeli threat.
They criticized Hariri’s use of the term “militia,” saying the group is registered in Iraq and that their movement was that of “a political Iraqi entity.”
“We express our objection and surprise of the harmony that Hariri’s press office has shown with Zionist media outlets and with others belonging to Arab systems that have long [worked] with the Zionists and the American project,” the statement added.
A ministerial source launched a tirade against Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s response to Hariri Saturday evening.
“Lebanon doesn’t need any legions to defend it and the Lebanese state alone is the only one concerned with fighting any aggression on its land and sovereignty,” the source said.
Khazali’s move contradicts the requirements of brotherly countries and solidarity, the source said. “[It’s] a message that is rejected and that encroaches on Lebanese laws and [is] an unaccepted interference in internal Lebanese affairs that only the Lebanese are responsible for.”
When contacted by The Daily Star, a source close to Hezbollah declined to comment on the video and on Hariri’s statement. The source also refused to speculate on how the video could impact the dissociation policy.
However, the source said that the video was “taken two weeks ago,” before the Dec. 5 Cabinet session, and added that Khazali entered Lebanon legally.
“I don’t know the reason as to why it was released [now]. They [Al Ahad Channel] considered that it was normal, they didn’t take into consideration the Lebanese [situation],” the Hezbollah source said. “The video wasn’t broadcast on [Hezbollah-affiliated] Al-Manar or any media outlet belonging to the party.”
The video also triggered a response from several officials, some who reacted sarcastically, including Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt who tweeted a welcome to Khazali. “And why connect his visit to dissociation? This position might harm tourism. Mr. Qais has the right to [travel] after fighting Daesh (ISIS),” Jumblatt said.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that Hariri’s position was decisive, saying that the investigation he called for was important.
“What happened on the southern border wasn’t acceptable on any [level],” he told local daily Annahar.
Labor Minister Mohammad Kabbara, who represents the Future Movement in Cabinet, Sunday called for Khazali to stand trial.
“This media tour violates Lebanon’s sovereignty and is trying to suggest that the Lebanese border falls [under] the militias’ control while UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army are carrying out their duties in implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701,” Kabbara said. “The judicial agencies should take the measures to deal with these violations to the Lebanese state’s sovereignty.” – Additional reporting by Joseph Haboush