Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Asaib Ahl Al-Haq From A Breakaway Sadr Militia To Defenders Of Iraq

Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) has gone through a dramatic transformation since its founding in 2006. Originally, its leader Qais Khazali started the group because he differed with Moqtada al-Sadr about how to fight the Americans. AAH then became one of many militias supported by the Iranians. That alliance led Khazali to send his men to Syria to defend the Assad government in 2012. At the same time, Khazali moved towards politics and an alliance with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That proved eventful, because when the insurgency re-emerged in 2013, the premier called on AAH to help defend the country. Now AAH is on the frontline and taking part in almost every major operation to fight the militants. That has allowed AAH to move from being just one of many Shiite militias to claim that it is one of the main defenders of the Iraqi state.

Qais Khazali was a leading student of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and claims to be the true inheritor of his legacy (Wikipedia)

The rise of Qais Khazali began with Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, but he would later break with his teachings. Khazali was one of Sadr’s leading students, while the ayatollah expanded the work of his cousin Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr by appealing to poor Shiites who had migrated to Iraq’s cities, setting up social programs for them, and restarting Friday prayers. Sadr was also an ardent nationalist who called for an Islamic State led by Iraq’s Shiites. (1) When Sadr was killed by the government in 1999, Khazali and several others of his followers kept the movement alive by going underground. By 2003 he was one of the top lieutenants to Sadr’s son Moqtada. When those two split, Khazali claimed he was the true inheritor of Sadiq al-Sadr. Khazali called on other Sadrists to join him in fighting the U.S.-led occupation in his nationalist Islamic movement. (2) That resistance was largely funded by Tehran, which led Khazali towards supporting an Iranian style religious state and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s vilyat al-faqih, the rule of the jurist. In doing so he became a disciple of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In August 2012 for instance, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq posted hundreds of posters of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr and Ayatollah Khamenei all over Baghdad and Basra. The Sadr movement has constantly denounced AAH for its connections with Iran, and Moqtada al-Sadr has called them “people of the falsehood” and “foreign entities” meaning that they are not part of the Sadr legacy nor real Iraqis because of their loyalty to Tehran. Since Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr argued that Iraq’s Arab Shiites should lead the Hawza, the religious establishment, and not Iranians it would be hard to see how Khazali is maintaining the ayatollah’s traditions. Instead, his relationship with Tehran has led him to be under its religious and political influence. That has shaped most of his and AAH’s activities over the last several years.

Qais Khazali went from being one of Moqtada al-Sadr’s (pictured in the background poster) top lieutenants to breaking away and forming his own group Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AP)

Qais Khazali and Moqtada al-Sadr broke over differences on how to confront the American occupation of Iraq. In August 2004, the Mahdi Army launched its battle for control of the holy city of Najaf, which ended with a ceasefire. Khazali objected and went back to Baghdad to continue fighting the Americans. By October Khazali had formed his own militia along with Akram al-Kabi who was in charge of the Mahdi Army in Najaf, Abdul Hadi al-Darraji, a senior Sadrists in Baghdad, and several others. Sadr tried to woo them back by offering them high-level positions in 2005, but Khazali and the others continued on with their own independent activities. In 2006, Khazali finally broke with Sadr for good and went on to create Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. He brought along with him more leading Sadrists such as Mohammed Tabatabai, Kazim Abadi, and his brother Laith Khazali. All of them with the exception of Laith had been students of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr together. Moqtada al-Sadr and Qais Khazali were just as opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Their differences were over tactics, as well as politics. In 2005 the Sadrists became major members in the new Iraqi government as Moqtada aspired to become one of the leaders of the country rather than just a militia commander. Khazali didn’t show any interest in that effort since the government worked with the Americans. Khazali also probably did see himself as one of the true leaders of the Sadr movement as he had studied under the Ayatollah, while Moqtada lacked religious training. Sadr was also known to be mercurial. All together this led the two to part ways.

Image from an AAH video of an IED attack upon an American Humvee (AP)

By the summer of 2006 AAH started carrying out its first operations against the Coalition, and quickly received Iranian backing. Khazali’s militia became organized into four main groups: the Imam al-Ali Brigade in southern Iraq, the Imam al-Kazem Brigade in western Baghdad, the Imam al-Hadi Brigade in eastern Baghdad, and the Imam al-Skeri Brigade in Diyala and Kirkuk. By July these brigades claimed responsibility for attacks in Sadiya, Rustamiya, Sabi al-Bour, and Shaab in Baghdad, Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar, Diwaniya in Qadisiyah, and Daquq in Kirkuk. Khazali needed a source of funding and weapons to carry out these activities, and found a willing sponsor in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF). In May, IRGC-QF commander General Qasim Suleimani and Hezbollah commander Ali Mussa Daqduq who had been sent to Iraq to coordinate militia activity with the Iranians met in Tehran to re-think their tactics. They had been working with the Mahdi Army and several other militias to oppose the American effort in the country, but the Sadrists were fracturing into many small groups such as Khazali’s, and Sadr proved difficult to work with. Instead, Suleimani and Daqduq decided to work with some of these breakaway entities, which were easier to control. Khazali became the beneficiary of this revision in policy. That opened the door to training by the Quds Force and Hezbollah in both Iran and Lebanon. Daqduq would also become the main link between Suleimani and Khazali. Mustafa Sheibani, a former Badr Brigade members helped smuggle Iranian weapons and money to AAH. The Sheibani network was noted for delivering Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) to Shiite militias like Khazali’s. Tehran facilitated Khazali’s break from Sadr, and enabled him to carry out attacks upon the Americans. His most notorious operation however backfired.

American mugshots of Qais and Laith Khazali after their arrests for the attack upon the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center in 2007

In 2007 AAH carried out an elaborate infiltration into an American base, which led to the arrest of the group’s leadership. In January, a number of AAH operatives drove into the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center in SUVs commonly used by Americans and dressed in U.S. uniforms. They then killed one U.S. soldier and kidnapped four others who were later shot as well. IRGC-QF provided the militia with intelligence on the base and planned the attack. This would lead to the arrest of Qais and Laith Khazali and Hezbollah commander Daqduq in Basra in March. This completely disrupted AAH’s activities for several months. Eventually Akram al-Kabi took over the movement while the Khazali’s were in custody. In retaliation, AAH kidnapped five British nationals, the bodyguards Alan McMenemy, Alec MacLachlan, Jason Swindlehurst, Jason Creswell, and technician Peter Moore from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May using 80-100 militiamen wearing Interior Ministry uniforms. The captives were taken to Sadr City and then Iran where they were allegedly turned over to the IRGC-QF. AAH then demanded the release of their leaders in return for their prisoners. This led to several years of negotiations that were conducted by AAH members in Iran. At one point General Suleimani offered to stop attacks by Iranian backed militias if Qais Khazali were released, but the Americans turned him down. By 2008 AAH was feeling added pressure to get its leaders released because the militia had been dispersed by the Charge of the Knights offensive in Basra, Maysan, and Baghdad, with most of its fighters fleeing to Iran. By January 2009 an elaborate deal had finally been worked out between the Iraqi, British, and American governments, which allowed Laith Khazali to be released. In return for releasing not only the Khazali and Daqduq, but also most of the group's fighters held by the U.S. and airing a video, the 5 Brits would be returned. Several AAH commanders, and around 300 of its men were eventually released before Qais Khazali was set free in January 2010. In return Peter Moore was returned in December 2009, but his four guards were all dead having been shot shortly after they were taken from the Finance Ministry. The last one of their bodies, that of Alan McMenemy was not delivered to the British authorities until January 2012. This set a precedent of kidnapping foreigners to achieve the organization’s goals. In January 2010 it seized American contractor Issa Salomi in Baghdad, and claimed it held a second American, Ahmad Quasay al-Taae, which it took back in 2006. Two months later AAH got four of its members out of prison for Salomi. What appeared to be a major setback, actually ended up working to the group’s benefit. AAH not only survived the arrest of its leader, but also got almost all of its militiamen eventually released via kidnappings. It now had the manpower to pick up the pace of its operations against the Americans as they prepared to withdraw from Iraq.

By the end of 2008 AAH had been able to reorganize itself. Many of its fighters eventually infiltrated back to Iraq after the Charge of the Knights campaign. There was then a cease-fire while talks with Baghdad and the Coalition were on going to get the release of the Khazalis. That ended when Qais Khazali was released in January 2010. It then began to expand. Abu Dura for example, who was known as the Shiite Zarqawi during the civil war came back to Iraq in 2010 and was said to have joined the militia. (3) AAH also started a recruiting campaign (4) offering people large salaries and other benefits to joint it and carry out operations against the Coalition. Much of this money was coming from Tehran who was said to be providing AAH with up to $5 million a month. At the end of 2011, it began picking up attacks on the Americans so that it could take credit for their withdrawal. It would later claim responsibility for over 6,000 attacks upon the U.S. and Coalition forces from 2006-2011. The Coalition wasn’t the only focus of the group however. By 2011, AAH was accused of carrying out assassinations (5) of Defense and Interior Ministry officials in Baghdad. (6) In 2012 the United Nations documented 56-90 murders of homosexuals and emo kids, and blamed AAH for most of those killings. The next year the militia was accused of attacking cafes in the capital for allegedly hiring under-aged girls, being used for prostitution, staying open too long, and breaking religious rules on contacts between the sexes. One of the main reasons why Khazali created Asaib Ahl Al-Haq was to oppose the American occupation. When the U.S. announced that it was withdrawing at the end of 2011, it saw a golden opportunity to not only claim credit for the Americans departure, but to expand its base as well. It also showed that it opposed factions within the Iraqi government, and was willing to kill them. Finally, its Islamic ideas led to attacks upon groups and businesses it considered immoral and unIslamic. Overall, the group proved that it held extremist views and would use violence as its main means to achieve its goals.

As AAH grew its rivalry with the Sadrists became violent. Sadr had tried several times to reach out to Khazali, but those efforts failed. By 2010 the two were fighting. In December AAH attempted to bury two of its fighters in a cemetery in Najaf reserved for Sadrists, which led to a shoot out. Starting in the summer of 2011 there were said to be almost daily confrontations between the two. On June 8, Sadrist Assad Khader Mohammed was killed in Baghdad. June 18 there was a clash between the two in a market in Sadr City. That led the Sadrists to do a drive by on Abu Dura. Then from June 28 to August 4 four Sadrist and AAH members were assassinated in tit for tat killings. In June 2013 an argument led to a shooting at a Sadrist rally in Baghdad, which the movement claimed was an attempt on the life of Hazim Araji who headed the Sadr office in Kadhimiya. The next month AAH men burned shops owned by Sadrists in Baghdad’s Karrada district. That led to more fighting in Sadr City, and the burning of three homes owned by Sadrists. In August there was shooting after a shouting match in Hurriya that left a Mahdi Army leader dead. The Sadrists then retaliated by kidnapping an AAH leader. Finally in November there was heavy fighting in Sadr City and Zafaraniya that led to 15 fatalities. The conflict between Sadr and Khazali had always been an intense one. Sadr considered Khazali an existential threat to his movement, since he was a leading student of his father, had much more religious training then him, and drew away some of his top commanders and officials when he left. Usually the two just attacked each other verbally, but that eventually escalated to a small scale ware lasting several years, which mostly raged in the capital. This conflict continues to this day.

Despite AAH’s history of violence, it finally decided to turn towards politics, which led to an alliance with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. At the start of 2009 the first stories emerged of AAH considering a run in that year’s provincial elections. This opened the door to a number of talks with the premier and the National Reconciliation Committee where the group promised to give up violence as well after Qais Khazali was freed from American captivity. As part of the negotiations Maliki agreed to free all AAH prisoners. When Khazali was finally released at the start of 2010 however, he broke off talks (7) and moved to Iran. A year later, AAH was back at the table with the National Reconciliation Committee (8) this time saying that it would join politics after the U.S. withdrawal. AAH was serious this time as most of its leadership returned to Baghdad from Iran at the end of the year, and on December 26 Qais Khazali officially said that his group would be taking up the ballot. Maliki once again courted them, allowing it to carry out a parade in January 2012 to celebrate the departure of American forces, and a military march in June, which was attended by members of the premier’s Dawa Party. The group didn’t end up running in the 2013 provincial elections, but it did look to expand its base. It opened offices in Baghdad, Hillah, Najaf, Khalis, Tal Afar and Basra along with one in Beirut, Lebanon, plus religious schools in Baghdad, Maysan, Basra, Dhi Qar, Najaf, and Muthanna. It also tried to portray itself as a nationalist group by meeting with Sunni and Sabean leaders. In December 2013 AAH decided to run in the 2014 national vote, and would support Maliki’s State of Law. It ended up winning one seat in Baghdad with its Sadiqun list. Like Sadr before him, Khazali was hoping that he could turn his militia into a political party and join the government in Baghdad. Maliki welcomed this move because he was hoping that AAH could cut into Sadr’s base. That was the reason why he never did anything about all the fighting that took place between the groups. Although the one seat it won in 2014 was insignificant it showed the larger aspirations of Khazali and his alliance with Maliki.

Funeral procession for AAH fighters killed in Syria, Nov 2013 (Reuters)

Although AAH was making a peaceful turn in Iraq, it had not given up violence as it went to fight in Syria. In 2012 General Suleimani called on his Iraqi allies to help protect the Assad government. AAH sent fighters early that year. It was supposedly protecting the Sayid Zainab shrine in the Damascus suburbs, (9) but its first fighter was killed in Hama just over 130 miles to the north. AAH initially denied its involvement, but finally admitted it in 2013 when it started having public funerals for its men that died there. Members of AAH joined the Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas brigade, and eventually formed its own Syrian militia the Liwa Kafeel Zainab. To prepare for the fighting many AAH militiamen went to Iran for training, received money and weapons from Tehran, had Iranian advisers on the ground with them, and aid from Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran was intent on protecting its ally the Assad government when protests broke out there. Part of that strategy was using Iraqi militias to prop up the regime and fight the rebels. AAH responded to that call showing that it had become one of many Iranian proxies that could be used in the region. AAH would eventually become part of the backbone of the Syrian regime’s defenses, something that would be repeated in Iraq.

ISF M113 armored personnel carrier with AAH logo painted on the front showing the integration of the militia within the government’s forces (W.G. Dunlop)

When the Iraqi insurgency took off in 2013 AAH quickly became involved in the fighting. Towards the end of 2013 Maliki reportedly began using militias like AAH as an ad hoc defense force. In September, an AAH leader told the New York Times that it was working with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and there were reports that its militiamen had access to government badges and weapons. The next month Khazali announced that he was creating popular committees in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, because he felt like the ISF were incompetent and could not protect people. In January 2014, he came out in support of Maliki’s effort in Anbar where open fighting had broken out at the end of December, and began bringing back his fighters from Syria to Iraq to be deployed in that province. One commander was said to have been killed in Anbar that month. In March, Maliki organized AAH, Kataib Hezbollah and the Badr Brigades into a new security force for Baghdad out of frustration with the ISF. The next month it started a new recruitment program and formed Popular Defense Brigades. By the time Mosul fell, AAH was already integrated within many ISF units and was deployed in central and western Iraq. It would then be used in every major operation starting with the defense of Samarra in June. It would then go on to help clear Muqtadiya, Diyala and take part in the  failed thrusts at Tikrit in June, it fought for Jurf al-Sakhr in Babil in July, helped end the siege of Amerli in Salahaddin in August, and continued fighting in Anbar in September to name just a few. Everyone acknowledges that after the fall of Mosul and the collapse of the ISF in the north, Baghdad became reliant upon militias. What is less known was these armed groups were already operating alongside and within the security forces in 2013. The government’s turn towards militias was promoted by Iran, as it tried to replicate its Syrian strategy in Iraq. For example, after insurgents took Mosul General Suleimani flew to Iraq, and met with Khazali as part of his planning for the defense of Baghdad. IRGC-QF also provided advisers, weapons, training, and planning for AAH operations. In doing so, both AAH and Iran gained more power not only within the security forces, but the state as well.

As in the previous Iraqi civil war from 2005-2008, AAH was not only involved in fighting the insurgents, but carrying out sectarian attacks as well. In October 2013, it was reported that Maliki was using AAH for retaliatory attacks in Baghdad after terrorist bombings. This was confirmed by an AAH commander who told the Washington Post in early 2014 that it was behind targeted killings after bombings of Shiite neighborhoods in the capital. It was also accused of pushing out families from Jurf al-Sakhr in northeast Babil in January. In April AAH was thought to be behind death squad operations, and attacking homes and mosques in Diyala. The most glaring example was at the end of that month, when insurgents temporarily took over the town of Buhriz. When the ISF and AAH retook the village, armed men drove through it shouting Shiite slogans, burned houses and mosques, and rounded up 28 young men and executed them. After Tikrit fell to the Islamic State in June, AAH set up checkpoints in Salahaddin looking for ISF deserters and people fleeing the city, and ended up shooting at three cars and killing 12 people. It also kidnapped three Sunni men, killed them, and dumped their bodies in Sadiya, Baghdad on June 12. On June 17, Badr and AAH were believed to be behind the killing of 43 detainees who were taken from a prison in Jumarkhe, Diyala. The following month, 50 bodies were found blindfolded and shot in Khamisiya, Babil with rumors pointing to AAH being responsible. In early July AAH militiamen destroyed nine houses and five mosques in Ballor, Mansuriya, and Muqtadiya, and were involved in the killing of three civilians in Sensl and seventeen others in Nofal all in Diyala. Later in July, 8 black SUVs full of gunmen abducted the head of the Baghdad provincial council Riyad al-Adhadh and four of his bodyguards. They were taken to a secret facility in the capital where the guards were beaten and asked to confess that Adhadh supported the insurgency. The head of council was released after Prime Minister Maliki, the speaker of parliament, and several other Iraqi leaders and Western diplomats intervened. Qais Khazali secured his release, which led many to believe that AAH or a group connected to it was behind the incident. From June 1 to July 9 Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of 61 people with AAH being the most likely culprit. In September, AAH was accused of cutting off water supplies to Sunni areas, bulldozing and blowing up houses, ordering civilians to leave, kidnappings, executions, and mass arrests in northern Babil. The current Iraqi war is quickly repeating the worst aspects of the last civil conflict. Militias are targeting civilians because they are considered the support base of the insurgents, and therefore legitimate targets. This is leading to sectarian cleansing in places such as Salahaddin, Diyala and the Baghdad belts. While groups like AAH are behind many of these attacks, they could not be successful without the knowledge and support of the security forces and government, which again mirrors what happened from 2005-2008.

AAH has also been involved in criminal activities such as kidnappings for ransom. The most infamous incident occurred on October 20, 2014 when there was a 20 minute shootout between the Federal Police and militia gunmen in Karrada, Baghdad. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said that police were raiding a hotel where a kidnapping ring was operating. This came after a Kurdish businesswoman and relative of deputy premier Rowsch Shaways Sara Hamid Niran, who was abducted in September, escaped form her captors and made it to an ISF checkpoint. The police then surrounded the hotel she fled from. They found militiamen there who demanded that Niran be handed back to them. Gunfire ensued and four policemen ended up being wounded. A government official blamed AAH for the abduction. This was just one of many kidnappings, which have escalated throughout this year. While rogue elements might have been responsible for this act, it could have been one of many illegal activities AAH was involved in to raise funds for itself, something militias have been involved in before.

Since its inception in 2006 Asaib Ahl Al-Haq has increased its standing. It started off as one of many breakaway factions from the Sadr Trend. What set it apart was that its leadership was made up of many prominent students of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr and Mahdi Army commanders. It also gained Iranian backing because they shared a mutual interest in driving the Americans out of Iraq. It continued to work as an Iranian proxy when it sent troops to fight in Syria. At the same time, it moved into Iraqi politics gaining an early and powerful ally in Prime Minister Maliki. Today AAH claims to be a protector of the nation and the Shiite community against the insurgency, while politicians praise its activities, and it is routinely featured in the Iraqi media. That has led supporters to overlook its allegiance to Iran and sectarian attacks, and see it as a nationalist force. This has all allowed Qais Khazali to finally acquire the position he has always wanted, to be at the table of the Iraqi elite.


1. Cole, Juan, “The United States and Shi’ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,” Middle East Journal, Autumn 2003

2. Al Akhbar News, “Iraq: Qais al-Khazali: In the shadows of resistance,” 1/21/12

3. Fayad, Ma’ad, “Iraq: Notorious Shiite Warlord Returns to Baghdad,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 8/18/10

4. Sotaliraq, “League of the Righteous in Iraq, giving their followers the amount of two million dinars for every military operation, and news on the financing of Iranian,” 6/22/11

5. Alsumaria, “Iraq Minister: League of the Righteous willing to engage in national reconciliation,” 5/25/11

6. Radio Nawa, “Qassim Atta: League of the Righteous, and Al Qaeda were responsible for the death in Baghdad,” 7/29/11

7. Alsumaria, “Asaib Ahl Al Haw group suspended talks with Iraq’s Government,” 2/5/10

8. Alsumaria, “Iraq Minister: League of the Righteous willing to engage in national reconciliation,” 5/25/11

9. Shafaq News, “Source: Asaib alhel al – Haq intensify their presence in Damascus to protect Zeinab shrine,” 7/26/12


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Karim, Ammar, “Baghdad shootout points to growing militia threat,” Agence France Presse, 10/21/14

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Lewis, Jessica, Ali, Ahmed, and Kagan, Kimberly, “Iraq’s sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize,” Institute for the Study of War, 5/31/13

Londono, Ernesto and Fadel, Leila, “U.S. failure to neutralize Shiite militia in Iraq threatens to snarl pullout,” Washington Post, 3/4/10

Al Mada, “3 Baghdadi neighborhoods witnessing armed clashes between “known militias,”” 12/1/13
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Mahmood, Mona, O’Kane, Maggie, Grandjean, Guy, “Why Iran’s kidnap squad struck,” Guardian, 12/31/09

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New Sabah, “”The people of the right to” reveal the details turned into a brawl and shooting deaths,” 6/9/13
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Radio Nawa, “Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous Andon today under the banner of national reconciliation,” 12/24/11
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Ramzi, Kholoud, “mahdi army vs league of righteous: fears that fresh violence between shiites could spread,” Niqash, 7/14/11

Roads To Iraq, “Asaib Al-Haq: We still have a British and an American hostages,” 2/2/10
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Sengupta, Kim, “Britain backs prisoners release to free three hostages,” Independent, 6/23/09

Shafaq News, “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq leader threatens to strike Kurdish interests,” 6/15/14
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Iraq’s Oil Exports And Revenue Drop In May

In May Iraq suffered a drop in international oil prices. Its exports dipped as well.