Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement has faced an increasing number of splits. After his August 2004 uprising some of his militia commanders began leaving the fold. Many of these went on to form Special Groups. One was Qais Khazali who created Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous. He moved in and out of the Sadr Trend, but eventually turned to Iran and Hezbollah for aid, and was arrested by the Americans in March 2007. Within days Khazali’s followers responded by kidnapping five Britons. London is now in negotiations to release them in return for Khazali’s freedom. At the same time, moderate members of the Sadr movement have left and formed a new group because they fear leaders like Khazali are undermining their good work. This will add new challengers to Sadr’s leadership.
Qais Khazali was a student of Moqtada’s father Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr. When he was assassinated by Saddam in 1999, Qais and a small group of other followers kept the movement alive by going underground. When Moqtada took over the group in April 2003 Khazali became one of his main supporters. After the second Sadr uprising that ended in September 2004 with a cease-fire, Khazali went back to Sadr City in Baghdad and continued attacking the American forces. By October 2004 Khazali had created his own independent group that would later be known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, League of the Righteous. By March 2005 Khazali had been convinced to rejoin the Sadr movement, but he still carried out his own activities as well. In June 2006 Khazali left again, and was chosen to lead the Special Groups, the breakaway militia groups that had become disillusioned with Sadr and were receiving increasing funding and weapons from Iran. Many of these fighters began traveling to Iran for training and also received aid from Hezbollah. Those activities were coordinated through Hezbollah commander Ali Musa Daqduq who was operating in Iraq. On January 20, 2007 Asaib Ahl al-Haq carried out their most brazen attack when they raided a command center in Karbala dressed as U.S. soldiers, and killed five Americans and wounded three others. That eventually led to Khazali, his brother Laith, and Daqduq’s arrest on March 20. Akram al-Kabi took over the leadership of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
In response to the capture of Khazali, Asaib Ahl al-Haq raided the Finance Ministry building in Baghdad on March 29. They kidnapped Peter Moore, a British computer consultant who was working for a U.S. company Bearing Point that was providing financial training to the Iraqi government. Moore’s two guards, and two others were taken as well. They worked for the Canadian security company Garda World. Two of them were Scottish, and the other two were from Wales. The British Foreign Ministry has been trying to negotiate their release ever since.
With the English stepping up their withdrawal from southern Iraq, pressure is increasing to gain Moore’s release. That began at the beginning of March 2009 when the British announced that they were opening ties with Hezbollah. The Lebanese group is acting as middleman between the British and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Later in the month the Iraqi group sent a video of Moore to the British Embassy in Baghdad. It was shown on TV, which is supposedly part of the deal to release the hostages. Next ten members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, including Laith Khazali are to be released for one of the British security guards. If that is successful more will follow with the final trade being Peter Moore for Ali Musa Daqduq and Qais Khazali.
If the Khazali brothers are released it could re-invigorate Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and complicate Sadr’s leadership. Khazali claims that he is the rightful heir to the elder Sadr’s movement. While they have been solely a military group committed to attacking the Coalition forces, in February 2009 they announced that they wanted to run in the parliamentary elections planned for December. Asaib Ahl al-Haq have said they want an Iranian style religious state. A move towards politics could be encouraged by Baghdad, as the government has been giving amnesty to some Special Group members in return for them giving up their weapons. Sadr is aware of this challenge, and has asked Special Group members to return to his group, but he hasn’t been successful.
Of more immediate concern to Sadr is the defection of moderate members of the Sadrist Trend. On March 21, 2009 a group of former Sadrists met in Baghdad to announce a new group, the Clerics Advisory, Shura al-Ullama. They claim to have 200 followers. The group has been formed because they fear that the Sadr movement is being taken over by militants backed by Iran. Shura al-Ullama will run social programs like the original Sadr movement, and is also hoping to set up offices across the country to run in the parliamentary elections. The government supports this group as well. The head of Iraq’s Reconciliation Committee Zuhair Chalabi attended their opening meeting.
As reported before, Sadr has faced a series of defections over the years. Many militia members have left his group, while others have been rounded up after the government’s crackdown in 2008. In June of that year he disbanded his Mahdi Army, and formed a new organization, Mumahidoon, Those Who Pave The Way, which is an unarmed, cultural and religious group. In the January 2009 provincial elections, he backed two independent lists to mixed results. He lost control of Maysan and reportedly Sadr City, but gained seats in more provinces than he did in the last vote in 2005. Now he is facing more problems. Khazali is a rival for the loyalty of many militia members who are dissatisfied with Sadr’s move away from armed struggle. The Clerics Advisory could draw away those more moderate members who are opposed to continuing fighting. Either way it could be another break for an already fractious movement.
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Anti-US Iraqi cleric facing leadership challenge,” Associated Press, 2/20/09
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Cochrane, Marisa, “Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Khazali Special Groups network,” Institute for the Study of War,” 1/13/08
- “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2009
Colvin, Marie, “Families told release of UK hostages not a done deal,” Times of London, 3/29/09
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