David Ignatius
Opinion writer July 29, 2011

Of all the leftover business for the Obama administration as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq at the end of the year, nothing is more symbolic of the continuing threats there — and throughout the region — than the case of a Lebanese Hezbollah operative named Ali Mussa Daqduq.

Daqduq has been one of Iran’s top covert operatives in Iraq, according to U.S. officials. He was captured in March 2007 by U.S. forces in Basra who had evidence that he had plotted (with Iranian help) a kidnapping in Karbala that January that resulted in the deaths of five American soldiers. U.S. satellite photos showed the Iranians had even built a mock-up of the Karbala facility inside Iran to practice the kidnapping.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Daqduq is a prisoner at Camp Cropper, a U.S. detention facility near the Baghdad airport. Thousands of other detainees have already been released, and the United States must close Camp Cropper by year’s end under the status-of-forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. The detainees will be handed over to the Iraqis (who would probably free many of them) unless they are transferred elsewhere.

Herein lies the Daqduq conundrum, which has been the subject of weekly interagency meetings this summer: The White House is leaning against releasing a prisoner who has American blood on his hands. But how should he be prosecuted?

The administration is weighing several options. First, Daqduq could be tried by a U.S. military commission, presumably at Guantanamo Bay, under the laws of war. A second option is to try him in a civilian court. That’s what the Justice Department decided to do this month with a Somali terrorism suspect named Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame. He was indicted and transferred to New York for trial after being held for months on a naval vessel in the Persian Gulf.

The case — surprise! — has become something of a partisan political squabble. On July 21, 20 Republican senators wrote Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urging him not to release Daqduq to the Iraqis and arguing that he should be held at Gitmo and, if possible, tried by a military commission. “If he is released from custody, we firmly believe he will seek to harm or kill more American servicemen and women,” the senators wrote.

In a May 16 letter, Republican senators had warned Attorney General Eric Holder against trying Daqduq in a civilian court. “His actions clearly defy the laws of war,” they argued.

I’m no legal expert, but I do know that Daqduq represents the sharp end of the spear that Iran is pointing at Iraq and other Arab nations. He was part of Hezbollah’s special operations unit, created in the mid-1980s by Imad Mughniyah and directed by him until he was assassinated in 2008. The senior surviving member of this elite group of Hezbollah fighters is said to be Mustafa Badr al-Din, who, according to news reports, was indicted by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the 2005 murder of Rafiq al-Hariri.

A dossier on Daqduq — suggesting the scope of Iranian activities in Iraq — was presented in July 2007 by Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, then U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. In 2005, Hezbollah sent Daqduq to Iran to help train Iraqi extremists for the Quds Force, the covert-action arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He made four trips to Iraq in 2006.

Back in Tehran, Daqduq was told to organize “Special Groups” of Shiite extremists that would operate like Hezbollah fighters. According to Bergner, Iran was, at that time, funding the Special Groups with $750,000 to $3 million a month, as well as training them to use “Explosively Formed Projectiles,” the sophisticated roadside bombs that have killed so many U.S. troops.

These Hezbollah cadres, backed with Iranian money and intelligence support, have in recent years fanned out across the region. As Arabic-speaking Lebanese, they can work with Shiite activists from Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, as well as Iraq. Iran’s leverage in Iraq will be especially important if its ally, Bashar al-Assad, is toppled in Syria.

At a time when Iranian-made weapons are killing a rising number of U.S. troops who remain in Iraq, U.S. senior military commanders have warned the White House that releasing Daqduq would send what one calls “a horrible message.” The Obama administration seems to agree — and is weighing how to try this Hezbollah operative. I favor a trial, but not in the heart of Manhattan. The al-Qaeda threat may be waning, but not that posed by Hezbollah.

davidignatius@washpost.com