Monday, January 23, 2012

What Role Will The League Of The Righteous Play In Iraqi Politics?

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.


1. Radio Nawa, “Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous Andon today under the banner of national reconciliation,” 12/24/11

2. August, Oliver, “End the torment, says Brown as death of British hostage is confirmed,” Times of London, 9/4/09

3. Hines, Nico, “Peter Moore: 31 months of Iraqi captivity,” Times of London, 12/30/09

4. Awan Daily, “Maliki announced next week, the electoral coalition,” 9/25/09

5. Sotaliraq, “League of the Righteous in Iraq, giving their followers the amount of two million dinars for every military operation, and news on the financing of Iranian,” 6/22/11


Agence France Presse, “2nd UPDATE: Iraqi PM Met Group Behind Kidnap Of Britons,” 8/3/09
- “Iraqi kidnappers abandon govt talks,” 12/1/09
- “Over 100 from Iraqi group who killed Britons freed,” 9/27/09

AIN, “Sadr: “Politicians care about posts, ignore Iraqi blood,”” 1/11/12

Al Akhbar News, “Iraq: Qais al-Khazali: In the shadows of resistance,” 1/21/12

AK News, “Attempt to incorporate al-Haq group in political process,” 12/8/10

Alsumaria, “Asaib Ahl Al Haq group: dropping arms out of question until full US withdrawal,” 11/2/11
- “Asaib Ahl Al Haw group suspended talks with Iraq’s Government,” 2/5/10
- “Iraq Minister: League of the Righteous willing to engage in national reconciliation,” 5/25/11
- “US Army: Iranian Quds Force has investment projects in Karbala and Najaf to support armed groups in Iraq,” 4/30/11
- “US Forces release 2 Asaib Ahl Al Haq members,” 7/30/09

Arango, Tim, “Freed American in Iraq Expected to Return to U.S.,” New York Times, 3/28/10

Arraf, Jane, “Kidnapping of American in Iraq sparked by faltering reconciliation talks,” Christian Science Monitor, 2/11/10
- “US likely to release insurgent accused of killing five US soldiers,” Christian Science Monitor, 6/11/09

Associated Press, “Baghdad’s blast walls to come down,” 8/6/09
- “Body of UK hostage turned over to embassy in Iraq,” 1/20/12
- “US troops face increasing dangers from Shiite militias in southern Iraq,” 5/17/11

Aswat al-Iraq, “Haq group participation affects political situation – Ahrar bloc,” 1/4/12

August, Oliver, “End the torment, says Brown as death of British hostage is confirmed,” Times of London, 9/4/09

Awan Daily, “Maliki announced next week, the electoral coalition,” 9/25/09

Chulov, Martin, “Shia cleric’s release by US forces provided key to Peter Moore’s freedom,” Guardian, 12/30/09

Cockburn, Patrick, “Revealed: why UK hostages were killed,” Independent, 7/10/09

Harari, Michal, “Status Update: Shi’a Militias in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 8/16/10

Al-Hassani, Mustafa, “Sadrists accuse Maliki’s support and threatens to topple Alasaub,” Shat News, 1/2/12

Healy, Jack and Schmidt, Michael, “Political Role for Militants Worsens Fault Lines in Iraq,” New York Times, 1/5/12

Hines, Nico, “Peter Moore: 31 months of Iraqi captivity,” Times of London, 12/30/09

Knights, Michael, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, November 2010

Al-Mada, “Sadrists dissidents advised not to engage with the Mahdi Army,” 1/8/12

Mahmood, Mona, O’Kane, Maggie, Grandjean, Guy, “Why Iran’s kidnap squad struck,” Guardian, 12/31/09

Mardini, Ramzy, “Insurgents Intensify Attacks in Iraq as U.S. Prepares Military Withdrawal,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, 6/17/11

National Iraqi News Agency, “Al Duri accuses Khazali of hiding behind Al Sadr clergy,” 1/21/12
- “Sadr accuses “Asa’ib Ahil al-Haq” of being ‘Seat lovers’, describes them of being killers,” 12/27/11
- “Sadr calls for punishing and expelling those whose hands stained with Iraqis blood,” 1/3/12

Nordland, Rod, “Iraqi Group Renounces Violence,” New York Times, 8/4/09

Nordland, Rod and Dagher, Sam, “U.S. Will Release More Members of an Iraqi Militia,” New York Times, 8/18/09

Radio Nawa, “Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous Andon today under the banner of national reconciliation,” 12/24/11

Roads To Iraq, “Al-Sadr’s election campaign, questioning Maliki is the next political crisis,” 12/9/09

Saadi, Ahmed, “Maliki supports the League of the organization to create the right balance of political with the Sadrists,” Shatt al-Arab, 5/28/11

Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Iraq Shi’ite militia says U.S. has ‘failed,’ pledges to lay down arms in wake of Sunni bombings,” Reuters, 1/5/12

Schreck, Adam and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “In Iraq, militia’s shift could bolster Iran’s hand,” Associated Press, 1/6/12

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “Al-Sadr fled to Iran due to assassination fears,” 1/26/11

Sotaliraq, “League of the Righteous in Iraq, giving their followers the amount of two million dinars for every military operation, and news on the financing of Iranian,” 6/22/11

Zahra, Hassan Abdul, “Iraq’s Sadr in war of words with splinter group,” Agence France Presse, 12/18/10
- “Iraqi Shiite militia ‘ready to lay down arms,’” Agence France Presse, 12/26/11


Anonymous said...

Great post! Just out of curiosity “Sayed” Moqtada Al Sadder is continuously threatening U.S. embassy in Baghdad, do you have any news about the position of Khazali regarding U.S embassy? After U.S army is gone Khazali (league of…) will attack American or local staff working with the embassy? Any idea about U.S embassy regarding Maliki “friendship” with the authors of kidnapping, torture and killing of Americans and locals such us Khazali & Co, Moqtada & Promise Brigade?
Here none is giving up their weapons so what kind of dealing is behind? Maybe because the gangs and murderers are Shii Maliki is so kind with them? Biden must be very proud of the new Iraq!

Joel Wing said...

I haven't heard Khazali say anything about the embassy so far, but I'm not checking the Arab press consistently right now.

From the two interviews I've read with Khazali however, it seems like he's done with attacks on the U.S. for now, and just wants to claim responsibility for driving them out of Iraq