Peacekeepers at risk in Lebanon in event of Hezbollah revenge attack for assassination
“Irish soldiers serving with the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in Lebanon were last night placed on high alert in case Hezbollah should begin attacking Israel to avenge the death of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad on Thursday.
After the killing, Iran vowed to take “severe revenge”, which is likely to involve the use of proxies such as Hezbollah — a Lebanon-based Shia Islamist political party and militant group — to mount attacks against the US and its allies.
Ireland has 358 troops in Lebanon as part of the state’s commitment to Unifil, the UN interim force there. Irish troops operate from UN posts located close to the blue line that separates Lebanon and Israel.
The Department of Defence was notified about the increased threat to Irish troops last night by the general staff at military headquarters. It is unclear whether the small contingent of Defence Forces personnel serving with Undof, the UN disengagement observer force in the Golan Heights, have also been placed on high alert. The Defence Forces declined to comment last night for security reasons.
The decision to put Irish troops on high alert followed yesterday’s broadcast of an interview with Mohammad Raad, a Hezbollah official based in Beirut, who said the response by what he described as an Iran-backed “axis of resistance” to the killing of Soleimani would be decisive. Raad told the Lebanese broadcaster al-Mayadeen TV the US had “made an error” in targeting Soleimani and that they would recognise this in the coming days. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also promised that Americans would “feel the impact” of their “criminal act for years ahead”.
The comments and other intelligence available to Unifil prompted the Defence Forces to immediately prepare for the possibility of attack in their area of operation in south Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold. Irish troops last night began attack drilling in case they are required to take cover in bomb shelters and to put on helmets and body armour should they hear the codeword “groundhog”, which indictates incoming fire. The consumption of alcohol by off-duty military personnel has also been banned.
The increased threat against Irish troops comes as Soleimani’s four-day funeral began in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets. The Iranian general’s remains will be brought to Tehran tomorrow before Soleimani is buried on Tuesday in Kerman, the place of his birth.
Soleimani was killed by Hellfire missiles fired from a US Reaper drone shortly after disembarking at Baghdad airport. Iranian military officials were also killed.
Michael Murphy, a former deputy director of Irish military intelligence, said Soleimani was revered by Hezbollah and that fighting between Hezbollah and Israel posed the biggest threat to Irish peacekeepers in the region. “If Hezbollah tries to hit Israel to avenge Soleimani’s death, it’s likely to come from south Lebanon,” he said. “UN posts would not be targeted, but they can easily get caught in the crossfire if rockets start flying.”
Jack Chambers, Fianna Fail spokesman on defence, said the government had to monitor the safety of Defence Forces personnel as a result of the escalating risk.
“Minister for defence Paul Kehoe must confirm that all the required and necessary force protection measures are in place while working with the UN deployed missions to mitigate and monitor any potential threat,” said Chambers. “The minister must ensure all necessary preparations are being put in place to ensure the safety and security of serving men and women.”