Monday, January 5, 2015

Inside The Moqtada Al-Sadr – Qais Khazali Split Within Iraq’s Sadr Trend Interview With Al Rai's Elijah Magnier

Elijah Magnier is Al Rai’s chief international correspondent. In the early years of the U.S. occupation he spent time with the Sadr movement and gained some important insight into the inner workings of the Trend, including the relationship between Moqtada al-Sadr and Qais Khazali who was one of Sadr’s top lieutenants until the two broke. Here is an interview with Magnier about what happened between the two that led to the formation of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, the League of the Righteous. Magnier can be followed on Twitter @EjmAlrai 

Qais Khazali (left) and Moqtada al-Sadr (right) (Shafaq News)

1. Qais Khazali was once one of Moqtada al-Sadr’s confidants. Can you explain what Khazali’s duties were within the Sadr movement and what their relationship was like in 2003-04?

Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali was one of the young students around Sayed Mohamad Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father. Moqtada stayed at home arrest when his father was killed by Saddam Hussein until 2003 when the U.S forces entered Iraq.

Moqtada re-openned his father’s “Barrani” (office) at the end of Al-Rassoul Street, opposite the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf to fight the U.S. presence in Iraq as an “occupation force”. The head of his army (Jaish al-Mahdi) was Abu Muhamad Shibl (who became the leader of what we know today as Kataeb Hezbollah) and his vice was Sheikh Akram al-Ka’bi.

During the manifestation that triggered the first clash between the Salvadorian forces and Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters in Najaf, once he arrived to Al-Kufa mosque, he appointed Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali as his spokesman to replace Sheikh Fouad al-Turfi who used to be in charge of Al-Kufa Mosque.

Since, then the name of Sheikh Qais started to pick-up as he was the one meeting with the media. He, along with Sayed Mustafa al-Ya’cubi and Sheikh Haidar al-Mussawi were forming the closest inner circle of Moqtada al-Sadr.

2. The conventional history about Sadr and Khazali was that they had their first break after the Battle of Najaf in 2004. What happened between the two during that time.

This is not accurate. During the battle of Najaf, Sheikh Qais was still one of the closest people to Sayed Moqtada al-Sadr. They hid together inside the Imam Ali shrine during the battle of Najaf until an agreement was forced by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani upon the Prime Minister at that time Ayad Allawi to allow a free passage for Moqtada al-Sadr and his people from Najaf to Baghdad where they went into Al-Sadr City.

The clash between Moqtada al-Sadr [and the Americans] with his enthusiastic followers attracted the attention of Iran.

At that time, Iran was supporting any group, Sunni or Shia, who would stand against the Americans in Iraq and prevent their forces from having an easy stay in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr was approached by the Iraqi Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis who was acting as the representative of Brigadier General Qassem Solaimani, the head of the IRGC-Quds brigade, in Iraq.

Abu Mahdi offered, on behalf of Iran, full support to Moqtada al-Sadr. A trip was organized for Sheikh Qais and Sheikh Aqram al-Ka’bi and others to Tehran. Iran offered a connection between Sheikh Qais and Hezbollah and offered to receive a selection of fighters to be trained on weapons handling and IEDs.

Moqtada al-Sadr, in his character, aims to distance himself from commitments. He pushed his first lieutenant Shaikh Qais al-Khaz’ali who volunteered among his three most trusted lieutenants. These were Sayed Mustafa al-Ya’cubi and Sayed Haidar al-Mussawi who alternated each for 15 days, including Sheikh Qais, to protect Moqtada from a possible U.S assassination/capture, changing his place of residence for a few years since 2005 until he left to Iran for a long stay in 2008.

Sheikh Qais was in contact with Imad Mughnniyeh who was in charge of the training of what was called Asaeb ahl Al-Haq (AAH), under the command of Qais and Sheikh Akram al-Qa’by, his vice.

Asaeb Ahl al-Haq initiated attacks in various places in Iraq, mainly in Baghdad and the south, in the Shia area. Hezbollah sent an officer with AAH, Ali Musa Daqduq, who participated in supervising the attack against the U.S. forces inside the Municipality of Karbala, [on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center].

Moqtada al-Sadr was aware of every single step and move made by the Asaeb. In fact, in the attack in Karbala in January 2007, bullet proof cars belonging to a Sadrist Minister were used so the doors would be opened to these cars when breaking into Karbala municipality without attracting attention by the guards. The Minister complained to Moqtada a week before about “a group of Sadrists who took away his cars”. Moqtada promised to “look into the matter” and asked Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali to speed up the return of the stolen cars. Moqtada knew about the attack.

3. 2006 was when Asaib Ahl Al-Haq was created supposedly as a final sign that Khazali had broken with Sadr. You dispute that history. What really happened?

When Sheikh Qais was arrested by the British forces in March 2007 along with Hezbollah’s Daqduq (who played deaf and dumb for over a month in his first time of captivity), Moqtada felt afraid of what Sheikh Qais might say during his interrogation. This was when he was advised by Iran to leave the country for fear of assassination or arrest by the Americans.

By that time, Iran helped AAH to buy institutions, flats, gasoline stations, and more to secure cover and income for the organization. Sheikh Qais and Sheikh Aqram were responsible for that part.

In 2008, Moqtada sent his aid-de-champ Sheikh Ali Smeism to Sheikh Aqram, to make sure all the assets belonging to the Sadrists were under one umbrella: his.

There were many meetings with Sheikh Aqram, who took charge of AAH  (he is believed to be responsible for kidnapping 4 Britons in May 2007 to exchange them for Qai, Daqduq and others) during his commander Sheikh Qais’ arrest. Sheikh Aqram refused to deliver anything, encouraged by Iran to keep independent.

In fact, Moqtada al--Sadr never enjoyed an “obedient” relationship with Iran despite his stay for 3 years and more in Tehran. He has accused Iran of being behind a continuous attempt to split his group and of encouraging other Sadrists to join Iran directly. Moqtada knew he had the largest group of supporters in Iraq that he inherited from his late father and that his followers were attracting every single politician in Iraq, including Iran.

Sheikh Aqram said clearly: “The name of Sadr doesn’t belong to Moqtada. We are all followers of Sayed Mohamad Sadeq al-Sadr.”

Moqtada knew his battle with sheikh Aqram was lost. That was the split with AAH and Moqtada al-Sadr.

4. After 2008 there was a constant back and forth between Sadr and AAH with Sadr trying to reconcile with and then attacking them, and then occasional fighting. What was going on during that period and was Iran still playing a role with the two groups?

Moqtada sent his new Jaish al-Mahdi all around the country to impose on all small groups to follow him. His Jaish al-Mahdi clashed with AAH and killed even a few under interrogation. Some of his close aids and relatives were also killed by in fighting.

Moqtada issued a series of letters condemning openly those who split from the Sadrists. It was too late.

AAH was well organized and Iran was behind it and backing it. Iran also offered political support asking Sheikh Qais to join the political arena by putting himself and his group, when released, with Dawlat al-Qanun to enjoy the protection of the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Iran wanted AAH independent from Moqtada because Soleimani considered the Sadrist leader as “unpredictable” by all means.

The last point: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes is not the leader of Kataeb Hizbollah in Iraq. The leader is Abu Muhamad Shibl, the same one who led Jaish al-Mahdi in 2004 in the battle of Najaf against the U.S forces. The same Shibl who was arrested by the Americans along with Ali al-Lami, the head of the deBaathification committee (a man of Dr. Ahmad al-Chalabi) who was killed after his release. Shibl was rejected by Moqtada but was accepted by Iran. His dedication made him head of a group fighting in Iraq against IS but very loyal to Iran. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is an MP and a representative of IRGC in Iraq not a leader of one single group as normally confused by media.


Anonymous said...

Awesome interview.

Anonymous said...

This interview shows how some inaccurate information gets recycled and then considered facts. I love this interview. Thanks, Joel.

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