The League of the Righteous was formed in 2006. Qais Khazali is their leader. He was a student of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father, who was killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Khazali and several other clerics kept the Sadrist movement alive after Sadr’s death. Following the 2003 invasion Khazali became a commander in the Mahdi Army. After the second Najaf uprising in 2004, Khazali refused to follow the cease-fire, and continued attacks upon the Coalition. In 2005 Sadr and Khazali made up, and he was given a senior position within the movement. The next year Iran selected Khazali to head the Special Groups that it was putting together of Shiite militiamen and Sadrists. Khazali’s group became the League of the Righteous.
In March 2007 Khazali was captured in Basra for planning several high profile attacks upon Coalition forces, including a daring raid on Iraq’s Finance Ministry in Baghdad, in which four Britons were kidnapped. In January 2010 Khazali was released after extended negotiations over releasing the British captives. During the talks Khazali promised to renounce violence and join politics. Most of League’s fighters were also released from prison at the same time. After Khazali was freed however, he went to Iran and broke off talks.
Since 2008 Sadr has gone back and forth over whether to reach out to the League and Khazali or not. On March 29, Sadr gave an interview with Al Jazeera where he called for the release of Khazali and hoped that he and his followers would rejoin the Sadr Trend. Khazali however rejected the talks because he was mad at Sadr for agreeing to a cease-fire with the government. In November Sadr tried again, but was rejected a second time. By August 2009 Sadr told the government that they shouldn’t be holding negotiations over releasing Khazali and his men because they rejected politics for violence. Then the next month the Sadrists were back at the table with the League, claiming that they wanted to bring them back to the fold before the parliamentary elections. (1) It was reported that Sadr considered the League a possible threat to his movement’s chances in the vote. Then when Khazali was released in January 2010 he went to Qom, Iran where Sadr resides to hold talks about reconciliation. That didn’t seem to work because in June Sadr called for the League’s members to abandon Khazali and rejoin the Sadr Trend. Those talks and other factors might have been responsible for the split in the League that was reported at that time, with some wanting to go the political route and others believing in continued armed resistance.
Given the history between Sadr and Khazali it would seem unlikely that the two would finally come to an agreement any time soon. In the last two years the two sides have held talks off and on to no avail. The nature of the disagreement is unknown, but it probably has to do with the uses of violence, the value of joining politics, and how to re-integrate the League and its leadership. The League also split, which probably complicates discussions. Although it hasn’t been mentioned in reports, Iran is likely to oppose any reconciliation as well. The League and other Special Groups still serve as a means to carry out attacks in Iraq, and are more under Tehran’s direct sway than Sadr. Khazali can also be used as a way to divide the Shiite militants, weaken Sadr, and keep the militiamen dependent upon Iran. Those internal and external pressures will be hard to overcome. That probably means more talks, and then statements about irreconcilable differences, and then going back to the negotiating table for the foreseeable future.
1. Awan Daily, “Maliki announced next week, the electoral coalition,” 9/25/09
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Anti-US Iraqi cleric facing leadership challenge,” Associated Press, 2/20/09
Agence France Presse, “2nd UPDATE: Iraqi PM Met Group Behind Kidnap Of Britons,” 8/3/09
- “US sees confrontation with Sadr splinter factions,” 10/12/04
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Associated Press, “Baghdad’s blast walls to come down,” 8/6/09
- “Shiite militia may be disintegrating,” 3/21/07
Awan Daily, “Maliki announced next week, the electoral coalition,” 9/25/09
Cochrane, Marisa, “Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Khazali Special Groups network,” Institute for the Study of War,” 1/13/09
- “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2009
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Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” June 2009
- “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq June 2010,” 9/7/10
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Harari, Michal, “Status Update: Shi’a Militias in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 8/16/10
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Nordland, Rod, “Iraqi Group Renounces Violence,” New York Times, 8/4/09
Roads To Iraq, “Al-Sadr’s election campaign, questioning Maliki is the next political crisis,” 12/9/09
Roggio, Bill, “New Special Groups splinter emerges on Iraqi scene,” Long War Journal.org, 8/20/08
Rubin, Alissa and Gordon, Michael, “U.S. Frees Suspect in Killing of 5 G.I.’s,” New York Times, 6/9/09