Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Iraq’s Sheikh Akram Al-Kaabi and Hezbollah al-Nujaba

In March 2015 Al Monitor published an interview with Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi the head of Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Kaabi has a long history in Iraq with Shiite political parties and armed groups. He was a student of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr in the 1990s, a military commander with Moqtada al-Sadr after 2003, then a leader within Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, before creating his own spin off group Hezbollah al-Nujaba that went to fight in Syria and is now engaged in Iraq. Today, Kaabi and his organization are one of many within the Hashd al-Shaabi, which are close to Iran and taking part in its rivalry with the United States for influence after the war is over.

Video featuring the clerical and military credentials of Sheikh Kaabi

In Sheikh Akram Al-Kaabi’s interview with Al Monitor he expressed his close ties to Iran and his opposition to the United States’ involvement in Iraq. Kaabi said that his group Hezbollah al-Nujaba was assisted by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah advisers as well as receiving weapons from Tehran. He went on to say that he believed in vilyat al-faqih and was following the teachings of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He then condemned the United States, blaming it for Iraq’s problems from the 2003 invasion up to the present day. He repeated an often heard claim amongst Iraqis today that the Americans were secretly supporting the Islamic State by dropping it weapons and that its air strikes were useless. He blamed Baghdad for letting them interfere in the war, and threated to attack U.S. aircraft. He repeated that claim later on after Washington began air strikes on Tikrit on March 25. Kaabi’s statements reflect many themes that other pro-Iranian armed groups have talked about before. Like Badr Organization head Hadi Ameri, many of these groups have publicly praised Tehran for all of the assistance it has provided in the fight against IS, while attacking America’s role. Since Hezbollah al-Nujaba is a spinoff of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) they both claim to be the true heirs of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr’s movement, while also professing their adherence to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s form of rule of the jurisprudent. That is a difficult balance since one of Sadr’s main arguments was that Iraq’s Arabs and Najaf should be the leading the Shiite religious establishment, not Iranians or Qom. That contradiction is at the heart of Kaabi’s history.

Kaabi got involved in politics as a student of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr, which took him to the son Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, then Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and finally his own brand, which brought Kaabi closer to Tehran in the process. In the 1990s, Kaabi was enrolled in religious classes in Najaf under Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr. He was classmates with Moqtada al-Sadr and Qais Khazali both of which would be influential in Kaabi’s future. At the end of that decade Saddam Hussein had the ayatollah killed, and Kaabi was probably part of Sadr’s core students that tried to maintain his movement covertly in the following years. After the 2003 invasion, Moqtada Sadr re-opened his father’s office in Najaf and Kaabi was one of his top deputies. He would eventually became the top commander of the Mahdi Army, and participated in the April and August 2004 battles for Najaf against the Americans. During those confrontations, Sadr was receiving advice from Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, but afterward, Tehran offered its full support. Sadr did not want to be open about these ties so it was agreed to create Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), which would be run by Sadr’s top lieutenant Qais Khazali and act as if it was an independent group, but would actually still remain an arm of the Sadrists. When the Americans arrested Khazali in March 2007 Kaabi took over the organization. The next year Tehran became tired of working with Sadr who it considered too difficult and encouraged AAH to split from his movement. It did, and Kaabi would become one of its main leaders. As a way to try to establish its legitimacy AAH would claim that it was the true inheritor of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr’s legacy. Kaabi makes the same types of statements since he was a student of the elder Sadr. Given the fact that both AAH and Hezbollah al-Nujaba are funded, armed, and trained by Iran and now call for vilyat al-faqih it’s clear that they have moved away from Sadiq al-Sadr and are now firmly in Tehran’s camp.

In 2013 Hezbollah al-Nujaba emerged as a new armed faction doing battle in Syria. According to Kaabi he retired from AAH in 2011 after the United States withdrew its forces from Iraq, and went back to his religious studies. He claimed that the war in Syria brought him back, and that he created Hezbollah al-Nujaba to fight there. Like other Iraqi groups it said that it was defending the Sayid Zainab shrine in the Damascus suburbs. By Kaabi’s own admission though his fighters are operating throughout the country in places like Aleppo. He said they were acting as shock troops against the rebels in cooperation with the Syrian army and the National Defense Force also known as the Shabiha. Hezbollah al-Nujaba also has ties with other militias operating in Syria including Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasir, Liwa al-Hamad and Liwa al-Imam al-Hasan al-Mojtaba. It’s been speculated that these are all offshoots of Kaabi’s group rather than independent entities. Likewise, Hezbollah al-Nujaba is still believed to be connected to Asaib Ahl al-Haq rather than being a separate organization. This would be similar to how AAH was originally created to look like a new group, but was still actually part of the Sadrists when it was originally formed. Likewise Hezbollah al-Nujaba’s involvement in Syria came after Iran put out the call for assistance to defend the Assad government, which was eventually answered by most of the Iraqi militias with ties to Tehran.

Akram al-Kaabi represents how Iran has spread its influence within Iraq’s Shiite community since 2003 and is now attempting to use those allies to gain the upper hand in the country. Kaabi grew up under the tutelage of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr who was an Iraqi nationalist, and was opposed to Iranian influence. When the U.S. invaded however some Iraqis were open to Iranian assistance to fight the occupation. That’s what led Kaabi under first Moqtada al-Sadr and then Qais Khazali towards Tehran as a friendly patron. Today, Kaabi is fighting in both Syria and Iraq for not only religious and nationalist purposes, but in support of Iran as well. The Iranians want to parlay their aid to Baghdad in the war against the Islamic State into becoming the dominant foreign power in the country. Part of that plan involves supporting militias like Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and turning them into major military forces in the country. In turn this has garnered them more widespread support than they had before, and that political capital will be exploited in the future. This closely follows Iran’s strategy in Syria where it created irregular forces that eventually surpassed the regular army in defending the government. Its main rival in this endeavor is the United States, which is attempting to re-engage with Baghdad after putting the country in the rear view mirror in 2012. That’s the reason why Kaabi and others friendly to Iran routinely denigrate and threaten the American and Coalition air strikes. Tehran has played the Iraq crisis masterfully so far, and outplayed the U.S., which is criticized by many Iraqis with no connections to Iran for taking so long to join the war. Whether Iran is able to maintain this effort or over play its hand will be one of the major stories to follow in the coming months and years. Tracking groups like Hezbollah al-Nujaba will give an insight into how this all plays out.


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1 comment:

Faisal Kadri said...

Very nice analysis using sensible inside information Joel, thank you.
The general backdrop to Iran's involvement in Iraq and elsewhere has to be economic, the price of oil which if it stays near $50 a barrel then will limit Iran's escalation, especially if the sanctions stay in place.