Sam Wyer is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War specializing in Iraq. In December 2012, he authored a paper on Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous. It provided one of the most detailed breakdowns of the history and organization of the League, and how it has tried to change itself from an Iranian-supported Special Group militia to a social and political party. Below is an interview with Wyer about Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Qais Khazali was a follower of the Sadiq al-Sadr, then Moqtada al-Sadr before forming his own group Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous (Al-Arabiya)
1. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the League of the Righteous is led by Qais Khazali who was a student of Moqtada al-Sadr’s father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Do you know what his role was in the 1990s working for the elder Sadr?
Qais al-Khazali formed a close relationship with Sadiq al-Sadr in Najaf during the 1990s. After initially studying geology at Baghdad University, Khazali traveled to Najaf where he was advised by Sadr to stay in the city and focus his studies on religious affairs. Khazali studied Quran Explanation under Sadr, and quickly became a trusted aide along with Riyad al-Nouri, Mohammad al-Tabatabai, now a prominent AAH leader, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, and Jaber al-Khafaji.
2. After the 2003 invasion Khazali remained with Moqtada, in what capacity?
After Sadiq al-Sadr’s assassination in 1999, Khazali, Tabatabai, and others helped maintain the Sadrist Trend until the 2003 invasion. During this time, Moqtada al-Sadr remained under house arrest, and was thus unable to assume a prominent role in the organization. Following the invasion, Qom, Iran-based Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri declared Moqtada as his deputy and representative in Iraq, effectively establishing Moqtada as the leader of the Sadrist Trend. Khazali and others initially recognized the authority of Moqtada, and became his close deputies and aides. Khazali worked as one of the Sadrist Trend’s spokesmen until his split around 2004.
3. What led to the split between those two?
In 2004, Moqtada and his Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) launched two largely unsuccessful uprisings, the first between March and May 2004, and the second in August 2004 in Najaf. Following the suppression of these uprisings, Moqtada ordered the end of all JAM military operations against Coalition forces, and the Sadrist Trend was forced underground, creating fractions within its leadership who disagreed with Moqtada’s decisions. In particular, Qais al-Khazali and Akram al-Kaabi, who controlled JAM forces in Baghdad and Najaf respectively, continued to direct their forces without Moqtada’s consent. At the same time, Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri denounced Moqtada’s leadership, and removed him as his representative in Iraq, a decision likely facilitated by Iranian leadership, further damaging Moqtada’s hold on his organization.
4. Khazali went on to form his own organization, which eventually became the League of the Righteous. What is its ideology?
As a Sadrist splinter group, the League of the Righteous adopted a similar ideology to the Sadrist Trend. Ultimately, both groups claim to be the legitimate successor to Sadiq al-Sadr’s organization, which emphasized Shiite religious activism and Iraqi nationalism. Unlike the political quietist beliefs of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Sadiq al-Sadr believed that religious clerics should play an open role in political and social issues. This idea was continued in full force by Moqtada and therefore the post-2003 Sadrist Trend had a large focus on service provision, education, and political activism.
The League of the Righteous has largely followed this model. While formed as a militant group, it has recently expanded as a religious, political, and social organization. Unlike the Sadrist Movement, however, the League of the Righteous openly displays its allegiance to Iran, and largely submits to Iranian clerical authority, making it a more loyal proxy.
5. It didn’t seem like it was a clean break however as many members of the League went back and forth between the two organizations. Can you explain why that happened?
In 2005 Moqtada al-Sadr decided to refocus the direction of the Sadrist Movement, and emphasize political participation. During this time, he invited Qais al-Khazali and Akram al-Kaabi to rejoin his movement, and take senior positions supervising Sadrist political offices. Despite the initial splits in 2004, the League of the Righteous was not solidified until 2006, when Iran drastically increased its support in facilitating the formation of Shiite militant groups in Iraq. As funding increased, Qais, Kaabi, and others split from Moqtada once again and formed AAH.
6. What kind of relationship did Khazali forge with Iran, and why was Tehran interested?
As mentioned, Iran increased its support of Iraqi Shiite militant group networks around 2005-6. In June 2006, Qais al-Khazali was appointed the head the network that ultimately became Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. As the general secretary of the League of the Righteous, al-Khazali had a close relationship to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps- Qods Force (IRQC-QF) through his liaison Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah operative tasked by IRGC-QF with assisting the formation of Shiite militant group networks. Tehran saw al-Khazali as a much more dependable and stable replacement to Moqtada al-Sadr, whose sporadic actions made him difficult to control.
7. 2007 was when the League really came into public view with two of the most famous raids upon the Coalition. 1st was the attack upon the Karbala Provincial Headquarters. Can you explain what happened in that event, and what kind of support Iran supplied?
On January 20, 2007, League gunmen infiltrated the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, attacking the compound with grenades and small arms, killing one American soldier, and capturing four others. The militants were able to enter to compound by disguising themselves as American soldiers and driving SUVs similar to those used by U.S. government officials. After fleeing the compound, the militants executed their four hostages, and escaped.
While the attack was carried out by League militants, it was planned and supported by IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah. The operation’s sophistication far exceeded previous League attacks, and revealed the depth of cooperation and training provided by IRGC-QF and Hezbollah. After his arrest in March 2007, Ali Mussa Daqduq provided additional details linking Iran to the raid. He reportedly stated that the League could not have carried out such a sophisticated attack without the help of the IRGC-QF. He revealed his role as trainer and facilitator for Shiite militants. Furthermore, both Abdul Reza Shahlai, an IRGC-QF deputy commander, and Ali Mussa Daqduq were designated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for their role in planning the attack.
8. As a result Qais Khazali, his brother Laith, and Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq were captured in Basra in March. How did the League retaliate?
Despite the capture of Qais and others on March 20, 2007, the League was still able to quickly execute another sophisticated attack. On May 29, 2007, around 100 or so League militants attacked the Iraqi Finance Ministry, and captured Peter Moore, a British computer consultant, and four of his security guards. The scale and sophistication of the operation again points to IRGC-QF assistance. Some reports state that Moore was targeted because he was developing software to track down missing aid money, much of which some thought was going to Iranian Shiite groups such as the League. While unconfirmed, some also believe the League and their Iranian operators took the hostages to IRGC camps in Iran. In any case, the operation had a similar level of sophistication as was seen in the Karbala attack earlier in the year, despite the capture of Qais al-Khazali, his brother, and Daqduq. As a tit-for-tat operation, the Finance Ministry attack gave the League leverage to secure the release of their members.
9. What role did Daqduq play between Iran, Hezbollah and the League?
From around 2005 till his capture in 2007, Daqduq, a member of Lebanese Hezbollah since 1983, played a crucial role in Qods Force’s external operations network. During this time he acted as the liaison between Qais al-Khazali and IRGC-QF officials, particularly Abdul Reza Shahlai, the Qods Force commander accused of plotting the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in 2011. In 2006 Daqduq traveled to Tehran to meet Shahlai, where he received instructions to facilitate the formation of Shiite militant groups in Iraq. Under Daqduq’s supervision, Iraqi Shiite militants traveled to southern Lebanon and Iran to receive operations and weapons training.
10. How did the group use the 5 Brits it captured to its advantage?
The League successfully used its five British hostages to secure the release of all of its top leadership by early 2010. In June 2009, Laith al-Khazali, Qais’ brother, and Abdul Hadi al-Daraji were released from U.S. custody. In July of that year Hassan Salem, now the head of the League’s militia, and Saleh al-Jizani were released. Finally, in January 2010, Qais al-Khazali was freed from custody. Hundreds of lower level members were also released during this time.
11. From 2009 to the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, the League seemed to be playing a double game. What was it telling the Americans and Iraqi government about their intentions at that time?
As part of Maliki’s reconciliation campaign, the League was encouraged to put down its arms and end military operations against Coalition forces. Publicly, the League pledged to do just that, which helped create favorable conditions for the release of its leaders. The group began to engage in talks with the Iraqi government, and announced its desire to participate in politics once American forces withdrew. As mentioned, the League also negotiated the release of its leaders in exchange for the bodies of its British captives. Numerous officials from both the Iraqi and U.S. government publicly announced their perception that the League was taking constructive steps towards reconciliation.
12. At the same time what kind of military operations was it carrying out?
Despite its pledges, the League continued to conduct operations against Coalition and Iraqi forces using explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), improvised rocket assisted munitions (IRAMs), targeted kidnappings, and assassinations. The League was also engaged in a competition with the Sadrist Movement, which often ignited firefights and political assassinations.
13. Since 2011 the League has tried to refashion itself as a political and religious organization instead of a militia. What steps has it taken to change its image?
The League has totally revamped its public image. Instead of boasting about its military operations against Coalition forces, the group now focuses on Iraqi nationalism and fixing the flaws of the current Iraqi government. It has rebranded itself as an “Iraqi nationalist political organization.” It now claims to promote national dialogue between all religious and ethnic groups, helps provide services to minorities, runs networks of religious schools, and has opened a number of political representations throughout Iraq and in Beirut.
14. At first, it said that it was going to run in the 2013 provincial elections, and then changed its mind. It’s not clear whether it will participate in the 2014 parliamentary vote either. How do you account for this uncertainty in its strategy?
The reasons behind the decision not to run in the provincial elections are not entirely clear. On one hand, it could be that the group does not feel organizationally ready to participate directly. On the other, it could be a strategic decision by Maliki, Iran, or the League itself in order to have the group to influence Iraq outside the electoral system. The League may also not have wanted to open itself up to any scrutiny involved in running, or it may be waiting for the more significant parliamentary elections in 2014, at which point it will likely have a much more support solid base throughout Iraq.
15. Today, the League has a strong rivalry with the Sadr organization. What kinds of conflicts have they gotten into?
In the past, the Sadrists and League members have openly fought each other in disputed areas around Najaf, Basra, and Baghdad. The League and the Sadrist Trend has been engaged in a political assassination campaign that has gained speed in 2012 as the League continues to expand at a rapid pace. In the past year, there have been at least five tit-for-tat assassinations in these cities as part of the larger competition over political support. While the assassinations have been extremely discriminate, firefights between the two groups have also broken out seemingly spontaneously.
16. In 2011 there were a large number of assassinations of government officials and members of the security forces. The Baghdad Operations Command blamed the League for some of these murders. What has the group said about its militia and the use of force in the last couple years?
In 2011, after the League withdrew from government talks, it said it would not put down its arms until the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. During this time, as the Baghdad Operations Command highlighted, there were a lot of attacks against both Iraqi government and Coalition forces attributed to the League. As noted earlier, the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011 prompted the group to reframe its objectives and public image. In regards to the use of force, however, the group pledged to halt all military operations, but refused to surrender its arms to the Iraqi government. In any case, it is apparent that the League has maintained an operational militia.
17. There have been reports that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has also sent fighters to Syria. What do you think about the veracity of those stories, and why would the organization be interested in the conflict there?
Obviously it is tough to validate such reports in the open source. It is likely, however, that Iraqi Shiite militants, and thus perhaps members of the League, are engaged to some capacity in Syria. The common denominator of the reporting seems to be the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood in southeast Damascus, the location of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, a very important religious location for Shiite Muslims. Shiite militants may be located in that neighborhood to actually protect the shrine from damage, or to use the predominately Shiite neighborhood as an operating base for wider activities. The League also opened a political office in Beirut, which given its history with the Lebanese Hezbollah, may be used as a coordinating point between the two groups. Participation in the Syrian conflict could provide the League with an opportunity to maintain the training of its militia, and also grow its regional proxy network between Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut.
18. What is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with regards to the League?
Ultimately, Maliki wants to use the League as political leverage over Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrist Trend. Even though Maliki has historically been able to draw in the Sadrists when needed, such as during the 2010 government formation, and push them away when they grow too strong, as seen with the 2008 Knights’ Charge operation, he would probably love to see the League challenge Sadr’s support base in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Maliki would likely push back against the League if they grew strong enough to directly challenge his authority.
19. What do you think is in the future for the League of the Righteous?
Essentially, the League could play a few different roles in Iraq, which I think is what Iran intends. First, it could continue its historic role of a large, well-funded, well-organized Shiite militant group that Iran has at its disposal. Such a group has historically been used to apply physical pressure to promote Iranian objectives and threaten U.S. and Western interests in Iraq. While the group has not been used to respond to Islamic State of Iraq operations against Shiites or attack U.S. interests in Iraq, such actions remain possibilities. Recently, the League threatened the use of force against Turkish interests for what the group saw as “blatant interference” in Iraq.
As a political force, it is likely that the League will continue to expand its activities throughout Iraq. It has recently pledged to establish offices in every province, with a particular focus in Ninewa. With that, outreach to tribal and minority groups will continue, allowing the group to expand its service provision network. The League will also continue to attempt to co-opt the legacy of Sadiq al-Sadr in order to hijack the Sadrist’s current support base throughout Iraq. It is unclear however what type of autonomy from Iran the League entertains.
Finally, as a religious organization the League will likely continue to develop its religious school networks in Iraq and Lebanon. Such expansion will allow Iran to penetrate regional Shiite networks. In this regard, the death of Sistani will be a major inflection point for the League’s religious activities.
In any case, the League will definitely be one to watch as Maliki continues to consolidate power, Syria continues to threaten regional stability, and Iran re-shapes its proxy strategy in light of it all.
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