Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), The League of the Righteous, is an Iranian-backed militant group in Iraq that has tried to change its image in recent years. After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the League claimed that it was going to join the political process, but would not participate in the April 2013 provincial elections, which just took place. However, a former high-level member of the group created his own party National al-Amal Party, the National Hope Party, which ran candidates as part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law in this year’s balloting. This could have been a way for AAH to test the political waters before fully committing to the fray.
Iraq’s recent provincial elections, which took place on April 20, included the National al-Amal Party, which was founded by a former member of the League. The Amal Party was started by Jassim al-Saadi in November2011, and ran candidates in Baghdad and Muthanna governorates as part of Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law list. Saadi has denied that his party is associated with the League, although he was previously a high-ranking member of the organization. When it was begun, Moqtada al-Sadr warned his followers not to join saying that it was a splinter group from AAH or at least claimed to be implying that the two were still connected. Several ex-members of the Sadr Trend lead the League, which broke away in 2004. Ever since then the two have considered each other rivals for the legacy of Moqtada’s father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr who was a widely popular figure in Iraq during the Saddam era, and have competed for the same constituency in the country. Officially, the League said that it would not participate in the 2013 vote, probably because it was not ready yet. The Amal Party however, might have been a way for the League to try its hand at politics unofficially to test its message, campaign techniques, and appeal.
Followers of the League showing off pictures of their leader Qais Khazali in Baghdad (Al Arabiya)
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq started off as an Iranian-supported militant group aimed at expelling the Americans from Iraq, and creating an Islamic state following the model of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 2004, when Sadr agreed to a cease-fire with the U.S. after the Battle of Najaf several of his top lieutenants broke away under the leadership of Qais Khazali. Khazali was a student of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr, and helped keep the movement alive after his execution by Saddam in the 1990s. The group received support from the Iranian Revolution Guards’ Quds Force, and carried out several spectacular attacks upon the Coalition including downing a British helicopter in Basra in May 2006, an attack upon the Karbala Provincial Headquarters that resulted in the death of five American soldiers in January 2007, and the kidnapping of five British citizens from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May. Those actions led to the capture of most of the top leaders including Khazali. He was eventually released, and when the Americans withdrew in December 2011, Khazali announced that his movement would be turning towards politics. It then launched a media campaign claiming that it had forced the Americans to leave Iraq, held a demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the U.S. withdrawal, started giving interviews to the press, and began setting up offices, religious schools and social services in central and southern Iraq in an attempt to transform itself from an insurgent group to a socio-political one. At the same time, AAH has never disarmed, is currently sending fighters to take part in the civil war in Syria, and has gotten into several confrontations with the Sadrists. Prime Minister Maliki has welcomed the change in the organization, and has been courting it for the last several years. The premier has tried to portray this as part of a reconciliation process between the government and armed groups, but the real reason is political. Both have a common goal, which is to weaken the appeal of Moqtada al-Sadr, and eventually win over his followers. Sadr is well aware of this, and has gone back and forth from offering an olive branch to the League at various times, to condemning their actions, and attacking their leaders. AAH’s recent violent history, close ties to Iran, and wish to create an Islamic state based upon Khomeini’s vision all limit its appeal to a mass audience in Iraq. However, it can appeal to members of the Sadr movement, since it shares much of the same early history, which is exactly why both Maliki and Sadr have given it such attention.
Since the League of the Righteous has only been operating openly in Iraq for a short period of time it probably lacks the organization and appeal to play a major role in this year’s provincial elections. Still, the appearance of the National Amal Party as part of Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law could be a sign that it was willing to send up a test balloon to see how it appeals to voters. Ultimately, AAH would like to form a large popular base, and join the government with all the benefits in money and patronage that includes. It is being assisted by the premier who wants to use it as a way to siphon off votes from the Sadr movement. Since the results of the voting have not been announced yet whether the two have succeeded is unknown. The League’s real impact upon Iraqi politics will likely be felt in the 2014 parliamentary elections, which the group will probably formally run in. Until then, Maliki can be expected to continue to cater to the group in an effort to build up its support, while the war of words between Asa’ib and the Sadr Trend continues.
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