At the end of December, 2011, the Iraqi Special Group know as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous, said that it was willing to join the country’s political process. This was due to the withdrawal of American forces that month. As a sign of good faith, it returned the body of a British bodyguard it had kidnapped and murdered back in 2007 to the British Embassy in Baghdad in January 2012. In America, this turn of events was greeted with caution as the organization is supported by Iran. Within Iraq, Baghdad welcomed the group’s decision, saying that it was an important step in the reconciliation process. The Sadrist movement was none too pleased with the League’s decision, seeing their former peers as future rivals. Every one of these concerns is likely to come true in the coming months. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will probably try to use the League against the Sadrists, so that he doesn’t have to rely upon the former as his main supporters, and these divisions within the Shiite parties will give Iran more influence as the moderator between the different factions.
At the end of 2011, the League of the Righteous said that it was willing to join Iraqi politics once the United States withdrew from the country. In early November, the League began talking with government officials about giving up its weapons. In May, the National Reconciliation Minister Amir Hassan al-Khuzai said that the League was joining the reconciliation process. That did not become a reality however, until U.S. forces were actually out of the country in December. On December 24, an advisor to Premier Maliki told the press that the League was ready to reconcile again, (1) and two days later the group announced that it was actually doing so. The leader of the League, Qais Khazali said that now that the Americans were gone, there was no longer a need for armed resistance. Khazali considered his organization a militant Islamic nationalist movement opposed to the United States. With them gone, it lacked its major rationale for existence, so it had to make a move to define itself in the new post-U.S. Iraq. That led to their decision to give up the gun for politics.
The Iraqi government had actually been talking with the League since 2009. In April 2009, the National Reconciliation Commission began negotiations with the group. In August, Prime Minister Maliki joined in, but they appeared to break down by the end of the year. The premier was hoping that the League would join his State of Law list for the March 2010 elections to bolster his support amongst Islamist Shiites, but that didn’t work out. If it had, it could have drawn votes away from the Sadr Trend that ended up winning 40 seats.
|British IT specialist Peter Moore afte his release from the League of the Righteous (Telegraph)|
That same year the League was able to win a major victory, by working out a deal with Washington, London, and Baghdad to release its leaders and many of its followers from prison in return for a number of Brits it had kidnapped in 2007. In June 2009, Laith Khazali, the brother of Qais, and Sheikh Abdul Hadi al-Darraji were set free. In return, the bodies of Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst, two English security guards were released in early July. At the end of that month, the Americans let two senior League leaders Hassan Salim and Saleh al-Jizan out of prison. By August, a spokesman for the group said that Maliki had agreed to release all of its members who were in jail, and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno claimed the League was taking steps to reconcile. By September, the body of the third security guard Alec MacLachlan was delivered, (2) and then over 200 members walked out of American prisons. Finally, in December, Peter Moore, a British computer expert emerged alive from captivity, (3) and Qais Khazali was released the next month. The entire process then broke down. The League said that it was breaking off all talks after a joint U.S.-Iraq Army raid led to the arrest of several militiamen from Sadr’s Promised Day Brigades and the League of the Righteous. In retaliation, the organization kidnapped Issa Salomi, an American working with a U.S. Army Human Terrain Team in Baghdad. He was held for two months before he was let go in March, in return for four League members. In the end, all of the League’s promises to lay down their weapons and turn to peaceful politics turned out to be a ruse. After all of its leaders and men were set free from American prisons, there was no reason for them to make good on their deal. Qais Khazali and other leaders of the League ended up in Iran where they continued on with their armed activities. In fact, the organization held onto the body of one more of Moore’s bodyguards until 2011, and Washington and Baghdad ended up being duped into believing that the League was actually committed to reconciliation.
|American Issa Salomi in a video made by the League while he was being held captive in 2010 (Al Arabiya)|
The British captives drama began as retaliation for the arrest of the Khazali brothers in early 2007. In January 2007, the League conducted a raid on the Karbala joint operations center. Dozens of League members dressed in military uniforms and driving western style SUVs entered the compound, and kidnapped and killed five American soldiers. Qais and Laith Khazali were later hunted down and arrested in Basra in March. The League then attacked the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May 2007 with dozens of men, again looking like an official security detail. That’s when Peter Moore and his four bodyguards were taken. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was believed to be involved in both the Karbala and Finance Ministry operations. The Iranians wanted to retaliate against the Americans for arresting several Iranian Revolutionary Guard members, while the League was interested in conducting a high profile attack upon the U.S. and then in securing the release of their leaders.
|A follower of the League holding up its emblem (Al Arabiya)|
The talks between the government and the League of the Righteous also had an affect upon Moqtada al-Sdar. Qais Khazali was a student of Moqtada’s father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. He eventually became a lieutenant to his son after the 2003 invasion, and a leader in the Mahdi Army. He ended up breaking with Moqtada several times over his willingness to call cease-fires with the Americans. The two would repeatedly split and then make, until 2006 when Khazali founded the League of the Righteous. It became one of the leading breakaway Sadr factions known as Special Groups, and gained the support of Iran. Khazali had strong standing amongst Shiite militants due to his pedigree with the Sadr family and history of resistance to the U.S. with the Mahdi militia. Sadr always considered him a direct threat to his appeal. As a result, the Sadr Trend began their own set of negotiations with the League in 2009 independent of the talks with Washington, London, and Baghdad. It tried to hide its activities by demanding that the government not enter into negotiations with the League, but the truth of the matter eventually come out. (4) The stakes were raised when the group said that it wanted to participate in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. That made both Maliki and Sadr eager to try to recruit Khazali’s followers to their side. Both would end up being disappointed. After the breakdown in talks the relationship between the Sadrists and the League would turn violent, as the two got into a shoot out in the Najaf cemetery in December 2010, and there were reports that Sadr left Iraq for Iran out of fear of an assassination attempt by Khazali. It was obvious that the two sides were more rivals than anything else, and that further hopes of reconciliation between them would go nowhere.
|Leader of the League of the Righteous Qais Khazali (left) and Moqtada al-Sadr (right) in friendly times (Shafaaq)|
By 2011, the League of the Righteous was gaining notoriety again, for its use of violence. In April for instance, the U.S. Army blamed it for the recent wave of assassinations of Iraqi officials and missile attacks upon American bases that month. As a result, U.S. casualties picked up that year as the League and others began targeting supply convoys going back and forth from Kuwait to Iraq, and U.S. facilities. The League became one of the major causes of American deaths as well as attacks as it tried to claim responsibility for the U.S. departing the country. The press it got during the year as a result definitely made it appear that its was in part successful in achieving this goal.
At the same time, the government began talks with the League once again. In May, the Minister for National Reconciliation said that he was in negotiations with Khazali’s people. Maliki didn’t seem to the mind the violence against the Americans at all. His main priority was courting the League in an attempt to undermine the Sadrists, who had become his main supporter in the new national unity government. Despite their backing, Maliki has always tried to divide and conquer other parties, and the Sadrists proved no different despite their being the reason why the premier was able to hold onto office for a second term. Perhaps sensing this, and not wanting to be used, the League put out feelers to the Sadrists in the middle of 2011. It was also reported that the group was trying to increase its appeal to Iraqis by financing religious seminaries throughout Baghdad and the south, and recruit more fighters by offering large sums of cash in return for successful operations against the Americans. (5) Like the Sadr movement it was modeled after, the League of the Righteous carried out social, religious, and militant activities all at the same time aimed at appealing to both the religious Shiites, and young men who might be angry at the Americans, or just looking for some quick money in return for targeting U.S. troops.
After it was officially announced that the League was going to try its hand at politics, Sadr reacted angrily. In December, he called the Khazali followers killers who were only interested in gaining power with the government. Perhaps aware of Maliki’s purpose in conducting talks with the League, the Sadr Trend accused the prime minister of sowing conflict by courting Khazali, and added that the League should be punished for killing Iraqis . Sadr was obviously mad that Maliki had succeeded where he failed. Again, Khazali had the pedigree to become a serious contender within the religious Shiite community, which would directly cut into Sadr’s base. That’s why he and his followers released a barrage of attacks upon the League.
|Leader of the League of the Righteous Qais Khazali giving interview with Reuters (Reuters)|
Qais Khazali and the League would go onto launch a propaganda campaign now that it could operate more openly in Iraq. At the beginning of January 2012, Khazali gave an interview to Reuters where he said that the resistance against the U.S. occupation was over, and that he would not joint the Iraqi government. He went on to brag about how his group attacked the Karbala joint operations center and the Finance Ministry in 2007, and how Peter Moore’s four bodyguards were all killed while they attempted to escape. Khazali went on to say that the fourth guard, Alan McMenemy, would soon be turned over to the British. That was finally done on January 20, when his body was delivered to the British Embassy in Baghdad. Then in another interview with an Arab paper, Khazali said that the League was a nationalist Islamic resistance movement, and that they were responsible for the United States leaving Iraq, and that he hoped the dispute with the Sadr Trend would not escalate anymore. He also stated that the government was in need of monitoring because it was corrupt, sectarian, and partisan. He claimed that would be the role that the League would play now that it was a peaceful organization.
It’s yet to be seen what kind of role the League of the Righteous can actually play in Iraqi politics. It can increase its activities in Iraq’s holy cities, fund schools, and provide social services to build up its base. It may not give up its weapons either, and could continue with low level operations as it has been accused of participation in the wave of assassinations of government and security officials that began in 2011. It might run in the next provincial elections as well, which are due to take place next year. Prime Minister Maliki can be counted on to make more overtures towards Khazali to get his support, so that he can play divide and conquer with the Islamist Shiites. That way he will not be so dependent upon Sadr. Iran will also use the league to gain more influence within Iraq since it is the group’s largest supporter. With more divisions within Iraq’s Shiites, Tehran can play moderator between all the different factions. On many fronts then, political, social, and religious the League will likely be exerting its power. How successful it will be is yet to be seen, but it could be a player since so many people, Maliki and Sadr, and foreign powers, Iran, are interested in it.
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2. August, Oliver, “End the torment, says Brown as death of British hostage is confirmed,” Times of London, 9/4/09
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