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US Troops Face New Threat From Iraqi Shia Militia

A Shia militia in Iraq has stepped up its attacks on United States troops, warning them to withdraw by the end of December or face an escalation in violence.
By Emad al-Shara
  • Asaib Ahl al-Haq shows off some of its weapons. (Photo: IWPR)
    Asaib Ahl al-Haq shows off some of its weapons. (Photo: IWPR)

After remaining fairly quiet for the last couple of years, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) has emerged as a fighting force to be reckoned with, responsible among other things for a rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone on July 4. Emad al-Shara, a local editor with IWPR in Iraq, describes the group’s history, military strength and role in Iraqi politics in a complex and fluid situation.

What is Asaib Ahl al-Haq?

The group began as a grassroots political movement in 2003, but turned militant in 2005 when it fell out with the Mahdi Movement of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which negotiated a truce with US troops after a bloody conflict in Najaf.

Some politicians and analysts believe Asaib Ahl al-Haq is backed by Iran, but members insist they are solely funded by Iraqis sympathetic to their cause. Although Sadr has denounced the group as a “renegade illegitimate” force, some of its funders are alleged to be closely aligned with his own movement.

The group’s leader is Qais al-Khazali, a Shia cleric and one-time spokesman for the Sadr Movement.

Estimates of the group’s military strength runs into the thousands. Its footsoldiers earn upwards of 750 US dollars a month. Many came over from the Mahdi Army in 2004-05 because they were unhappy with the truce it had reached, and wanted to continue fighting the foreign forces in Iraq.

Khazali reportedly said he wanted to recruit only the fiercest and most pious members of the Mahdi Army.

A senior Asaib member who was previously in the Mahdi Army told me he joined out of frustration and disappointment with Sadr’s militia.

In 2004, the US army supported by small number of Iraqi troops launched an assault against the Mahdi Army in Najaf after it carried out repeated hit-and-run attacks on coalition forces in southern Iraq. At the time, the Mahdi Army was aligned with Sunni jihadist fighters who opposed the foreign occupation. That relationship ended after the fighting in Najaf.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq has at least 12 offices across Iraq and a satellite TV channel based in Baghdad. It also maintains a presence in Beirut, for a number of reasons – liaising with the Lebanese Hizbollah, helping wanted Asaib members to hide out in the country, and managing financial assets the group holds there.

Asaib has a strategic relationship with Hizbollah, forged when the Lebanese Shia group helped train and organise it in Iraq back in 2004. 

What is Asaib trying to achieve?

Members say their sole aim is to free Iraq from foreign occupation and interference. It remains unclear how their agenda will evolve after a US withdrawal. 

Last year there was a marked reduction in attacks on US troops, so why has Asaib become so active now?

Ending the foreign occupation is the group’s raison d’etre, so it halted its attacks as the US troops withdrawal date drew closer. Following hints by the Iraqi and US governments that the troop presence would be extended beyond December 31, Asaib sent a warning by firing rockets into the Green Zone on July 4.

If US troops do stay on beyond the current deadline, could Asaib make life difficult for them?

Asaib’s capacity should not be underestimated. It is a tough fighting force with arms, experience and training, and is not reliant on support from local communities, which can often be fluid depending on the political situation.

The group says it has never lost a member in all its attacks on US troops, although the Americans dispute this, saying Asaib fighters have been killed in past encounters in southern Iraq.

How does the Iraqi government view Asaib Ahl al-Haq?

It’s unclear how the government regards Asaib at the moment. Its stance has shifted several times in the last three years, from open warfare to including the group in the political process.

The government generally treats Asaib as if it were part of the Sadr Movement. Prior to the March 2010 parliamentary election, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to include Asaib members in his State of Law alliance. This greatly displeased Muqtada al-Sadr, whose backing in parliament was so important to Maliki that the offer was dropped. This calculation paid off – the Sadrist bloc now holds 41 of the 325 seats in parliament, giving Maliki much more support than he would have got by recruiting Asaib.

For now, Asaib Ahl al-Haq remains an enigma, and its future intentions will only become apparent once US troops pull out of Iraq, or fail to do so. If the US maintains a high-visibility military presence, further attacks by the militia seem inevitable.

Emad al-Shara is an Arabic editor in IWPR’s Baghdad office. 

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