Opinion

Iran’s shadow warrior who sows chaos and discord in Iraq

Iran’s shadow warrior who sows chaos and discord in Iraq

Author

Preachers of hate are unethical but smart. Deceit requires brains and minimum wit. But not all preachers of hate were created equal. Some are street smart and talkative, often making arguments that reveal their shallowness. To make up for their inadequate intellect, they outmuscle their rivals, lead militias, and spew hate that they copy from their superiors. Such hate preachers become guns for hire, even if they insist on wearing traditional garments and pretending that they are pious and knowledgeable clerics.

The Iraqi Qais Al-Khazali, a cleric who is also the leader of one of Iraq’s most notorious militias, is one such hate spewer who pretends to be a cleric, when in fact his claim to fame is working as the operative of one of the many Iranian clandestine networks that sow war and discord in Arab countries.

Aged 29, this graduate of geology accompanied Muqtada Al-Sadr — who had inherited the mantle of his father and one of Iraq’s foremost Shiite clerics Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr — to a meeting with Iranian operatives. They were promised arms and training, if they would take on US troops in Iraq, according to declassified US investigations with Al-Khazali. A few battles and months later, Al-Sadr realized that he had little reason to undermine a burgeoning sovereign Iraqi state. Al-Sadr disbanded his militia, the Mahdi Army, and transformed his organization into a political movement.

Politics is rarely the strong suit of people with modest intellectual skills and, without a militia, Al-Khazali might have lost his prominence. However, he did not lose his connection to his Iranian handlers, who sponsored his defection from Al-Sadr to set up a splinter group, the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) militia. Al-Khazali’s miltia played a central role in Iran’s two-pronged war in Iraq: One against US troops, the other against Iraqi Sunnis. Iran connected Al-Khazali to Musa Daduq, an operative from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah who helped to engineer a few of the most atrocious kidnappings and killings of US soldiers. Washington estimates that Tehran is responsible for the killing of 1,000 out of the 4,000 troops it lost in the Iraq War.

With US assistance, Iraqi government forces captured Al-Khazali in 2007 and jailed him for three years, when he was released in a prisoner exchange for a kidnapped British contractor.

Like Saddam, Al-Khazali’s propaganda is one of cult worship, with news about him participating in various activities and giving opinions about everything, opinions that are usually posted on his Twitter account, too.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Since then, Al-Khazali has been one of Iran’s most loyal militiamen in Iraq, so much so that he not only joined the Popular Militia Units (PMU), but also opened shop in Syria. Al-Khazali even appeared in Lebanon, checking out the border with Israel, in a flagrant offense against Lebanese sovereignty. But who’s keeping count in Lebanon anyway?

With Daesh almost annihilated, Al-Khazali has been left with little fighting and lots of time. He comes up with unsubstantiated accusations against Iraqi Sunnis, accusing towns such as Tarmiyah, to the north of Baghdad, of being a hotbed for Daesh fighters, calling for a military campaign against the predominantly Sunni town.

Al-Khazali has also been developing his brand. He has taken as his spiritual guide Kazem Al-Haeri, a firebrand Iraqi cleric who lives in Qom, in Iran.

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“US President (Donald Trump) gives the countries of the Sheikhs of the Gulf a choice between funding his wars… and the demise of their governments,” Al-Haeri said in a statement. “This is the result of throwing themselves into the arms of the global arrogant powers after their loss of popular support,” Haeri added, claiming — without any substantiation — that Arab governments do not enjoy the popular support. “We also call on the Iraqi government not to be dragged into the lap of global arrogance in its economic, security and military contracts,” Al-Haeri argued, in a clear sign that the Iraqi cleric in Qom was unhappy with Baghdad’s warming relations with Gulf capitals.

In addition to toeing his mentor’s and Iran’s line about the “downtrodden” and about “global arrogance,” Al-Khazali echoes the official Iranian rhetoric, depicting an imaginary alliance between America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, as the source of all evil in the region. At a conference in Tehran last year, Al-Khazali said that the Iraqi victory over Daesh was a victory over America, Saudi Arabia and Israel. That America offered extensive air cover and military advice on the ground in the battle against Daesh does not seem to register with Al-Khazali, or his audience. Hate speech, after all, is impossible without some spin and a ton of deceit.

On his militia’s website, Al-Khazali’s publicity seems to copy that of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Al-Khazali calls himself Al-Sheikh Al-Amin, a play on words with Amin meaning both trustworthy and secretary general. Like Saddam, Al-Khazali’s propaganda is one of cult worship, with news about him participating in various activities and giving opinions about everything, opinions that are usually posted on his Twitter account, too.

Standing up to “cultural normalization with Israel,” Al-Khazali said in a sermon transcribed into Tweets, means “countering attempts to undermine Iraqi identity by spreading homosexuality in Iraq,” a line of reasoning that Al-Khazali seems to have come up with on his own and slipped into his speech, outside the Iranian-approved script. When speaking his mind Al-Khazali does not sound hateful, he sounds stupid.

 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. Twitter: @hahussain 

 

 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Qais Al-Khazali: A militant in politician’s disguise

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Updated 21 August 2019
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Qais Al-Khazali: A militant in politician’s disguise

  • Al-Khazali derives his influence mainly from his status as the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia
  •  Al-Khazali began to don the hat of a politician after the liberation of Mosul from Daesh in 2017

DUBAI: Qais Al-Khazali poses in public as an Iraqi politician who understands and defends the national interest. When he is asked about his Iranian connections, he answers that he goes there only once a year as a tourist. His evasive responses are a cover for a violent sectarian agenda. Al-Khazali is one of the leading preachers of hate in Iraq and the wider region.

He derives his outsized influence from his status as the leader of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), which includes a large number of fighters trained by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG) and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The number of AAH militants is estimated at about 10,000. He is also considered a loyal soldier of Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

“Listen carefully ... If you (Sunnis) do not stop your malicious projects, I swear you will not be safe ... will not be safe ... will not be safe,” he famously said in a televised speech in 2010.

On Aug. 22, 2014, the Sunni Musab bin Umair mosque in Diyala was targeted during Friday prayers by militiamen, who killed 73 people. The AAH militia was suspected of being behind the attack, despite it condemning the atrocity.

BIO

  • Nationality : Iraqi
  • Occupation: Secretary-General of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) militia, member of Iraqi Parliament
  • Legal status: Released by the US in 2007 prisoner swap deal with AAH
  • Medium: Twitter, interviews and sermons

“The August 22 attack is consistent with a pattern of attacks that Human Rights Watch has documented, including kidnappings and summary executions, by Shia militias Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, the Badr Brigades and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Baghdad, Diyala and Babel provinces,” Human Rights Watch said after the attack in 2014.

Declassified US Central Command documents published by the Wall Street Journal last year indicated that Al-Khazali was part of the planning behind the Jan. 20, 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala. He was arrested by US-British forces in March 2007 and interrogated by US authorities after the raid, which, according to Al-Khazali’s confession documents, was planned by Iran to kidnap five US soldiers, who were eventually killed.

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Preacher of Hate: Qais Al-Khazali

Al-Khazali was handed to the Iraqi authorities in late 2009 after he pledged that his militia would give up their weapons. He was released in January 2010, reportedly in exchange for the release of Peter Moore, a computer consultant who had been kidnapped with four security guards in May 2007 by the AAH.

The Wall Street Journal reported details of the investigations into the Iranian role in supporting terrorist militias. Scrutiny of the relations between Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite cleric, politician and militia leader, and Tehran revealed a desire by Al-Sadr to control the flow of Iranian money to political groups in Iraq.

The investigations revealed Iranian efforts to train the militia that Al-Khazali was leading, and the relations between Tehran and Iraqi political figures, including the late Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani, then Iraq’s president.

These reports in August 2018 came at a time when the Trump administration was considering the inclusion of Al-Khazali and the AAH on the list of terrorist organizations to impose sanctions on. The group claims responsibility for 6,000 attacks on American soldiers and Iraqi government forces.

After completing his studies at the University of Baghdad in 1994, Al-Khazali was drawn to the ideas of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, who opposed the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and criticized it in his sermons at Friday prayers.

Al-Khazali traveled to Najaf to join one of Al-Sadr’s schools to study religious sciences. When Al-Sadr and two of his sons, Mustafa and Mu’ammil, were assassinated in 1999, his fourth son, Muqtada, entrusted Al-Khazali and one of his colleagues with supervising his father’s schools, offices and obtaining legitimate funds.

Al-Khazali won Muqtada’s confidence, and when the latter set up the Mahdi Army, the first Shiite militia formed to fight US troops in Iraq after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam, Al-Khazali was picked as one of its field commanders and to be Al-Sadr’s spokesman. A year later, Al-Sadr formed an elite force called “Special Groups” to carry out lethal attacks against American forces. Again he instructed Al-Khazali to command these groups alongside Akram Al-Kaabi, one of Al-Sadr’s father’s veteran students who heads the Al-Nujaba Brigades, a Shiite group that was sanctioned by the Trump administration last year. As a follower of Iran’s Wilayat Al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) political system, the AAH has participated in the Syrian civil war as Iran’s foreign legion alongside Al-Nujaba and other armed groups.

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Al-Khazali began to don the hat of a politician only after the liberation of Mosul from Daesh in 2017 by the Iraqi military and Shia paramilitary groups that constitute the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). The PMF, which was given the status of an official Iraqi security body in 2015, draws fighters from an array of forces and ethnicities, but its leadership  consists overwhelmingly of Shiite groups with close ties to Iran.

According to the journal War on the Rocks, “groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), the Badr Organization, AAH, Al-Nujaba Brigades, and the Khorasani Brigades have received substantial training, arms, and direction from Iran. Iran still provides support to these forces ... these leading PMF forces and figures make no secret of their love for Iran and hatred for the United States.”

Now operating from behind a mask of political respectability — the AAH won 15 seats in parliament in the May 2018 elections as Al-Sadiqoun bloc — Al-Khazali is seen by many in Iraq as being well placed to bolster AAH recruitment, training and expansion.

US officials believe Al-Khazali’s participation in the elections was to empower the militia, following the model used by Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah to establish Iran’s dominance in Lebanon. A senior US official has said that of its 15 seats, only two were won fairly and the rest gained by corruption; the AAH denies this. Al-Khazali has declared Al-Sadiqoun’s parliamentary presence a failure, yet locks horns with anyone who challenges the bloc’s religious sectarianism.


Homemade bomb kills Israeli teen, wounds two others in West Bank

Updated 23 August 2019
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Homemade bomb kills Israeli teen, wounds two others in West Bank

  • Israeli security forces deployed throughout the area where the attack took place near the settlement of Dolev, northwest of Ramallah, to search for suspects
  • Palestinians sporadically clash with Israeli settlers and security forces in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967, but bomb blasts have been rare in recent years

JERUSALEM: A rare homemade bomb attack in the occupied West Bank killed an Israeli teen and seriously wounded her father and brother Friday as they visited a spring near a Jewish settlement, officials said.
Israeli security forces deployed throughout the area where the attack took place near the settlement of Dolev, northwest of Ramallah, to search for suspects.
Israeli medics had earlier reported that a 17-year-old had been critically wounded in the attack and officials later announced her death, naming her as Rina Shnerb from the central Israeli city of Lod.
Medics from the Magen David Adom rescue service initially gave the ages of the two wounded as 46 and 20, before amending to 21 in the latter case.
The army said the three victims were a father and his two children.
The two wounded were taken by helicopter to hospital, the army said.
“Three civilians who were in a nearby spring were injured in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast,” it said in a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “harsh terrorist attack” and sent condolences to the family, while pledging to continue building settlements.
“The security arms are in pursuit after the abhorrent terrorists,” he said in a statement.
“We will apprehend them. The long arm of Israel reaches all those who seek our lives and will settle accounts with them.”
United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov condemned the “shocking, heinous” attack, saying there was nothing heroic in Shnerb’s “murder,” calling it a “despicable, cowardly act.”
“Terror must be unequivocally condemned by ALL,” Mladenov wrote on Twitter.
Israeli forces meanwhile entered the Palestinian village of Beitunia, south of the spring, to take footage from surveillance cameras.
An AFP reporter said Palestinians clashed there with Israeli soldiers, but no casualties were reported.
Chief of the army, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi visited the site of the attack to understand the incident and oversee the efforts to locate the perpetrators, which he was “confident” would happen quickly, the military said.
Later in the day, Shnerb was buried in her hometown Lod, with thousands participating in the funeral.
Shnerb’s father Eitan, who was wounded and couldn’t attend the funeral, relayed through an uncle his request that people focus on “our strength and love and the wonderful nation and our good land” and avoid sinking into “weakness and anger and strife.”
“We should be worthy of the great sacrifice we offered today,” Eitan Shnerb was cited by the uncle as saying.
In a speech on Friday, Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Islamist Hamas movement which rules Gaza, praised the attack but did not claim responsibility for it.
He referred to a recent clash between Israeli police and Palestinian worshippers at the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and sought to draw a link between the two incidents.
AFP reporters said thousands of Gazans participated in weekly Friday protests at the Israeli border fence, with some youths using slingshots to launch stones at the barrier and a few approaching it.
The health ministry in the enclave said over 122 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces, dozens of them hit by live fire.
Palestinians sporadically clash with Israeli settlers and security forces in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967, but bomb blasts have been rare in recent years.
Palestinian attacks have mostly involved guns, knives and car ramming.
There have been concerns about a possible increase in violence in the run up to Israel’s September 17 general election.
A week ago, a Palestinian carried out a car-ramming attack in the West Bank, wounding two Israelis before being shot dead.
On August 8, an off-duty Israeli soldier’s body was found with multiple stab wounds. Two Palestinian suspects were later arrested.
Late Thursday, a Palestinian threw grenades at Israeli soldiers while attempting to cross the Gaza border and was shot by Israeli forces, leaving him wounded, the army and the Gaza health ministry said.
Gaza militants have also launched six missiles at Israel in the past week; the most recent were on Wednesday.
In retaliation, the Israeli army said it struck “a number of military targets in a Hamas naval facility in the northern Gaza Strip.”