The group’s chief officers have returned from exile in Iran, and they have set about opening a string of political offices, establishing a social services program to aid widows and orphans, and launching a network of religious schools, echoing the methods and structures of one of its close allies, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
At one of the group’s offices in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiyah, portraits of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, hang on the walls, alongside those of Iraqi Shiite religious figures and of the group’s leader, Qais al-Khazali. He is among those who have relocated from Iran, where he took refuge in 2010 after nearly three years in U.S. custody because of his alleged role in directing a raid that killed five Americans.
The immediate goal is to raise Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s public profile after years of secrecy necessitated by the war against the Americans, said Sheikh Mithaq al-Humairi, 30, the youthful cleric who is in charge of the office, located in a small house on a quiet residential side street.
“Asaib Ahl al-Haq was founded as an Islamic resistance movement to fight the American occupation, but now this stage is over,” he said. “Now we have entered a new phase, which is to make people aware of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.”
The rebranding dates back to the departure of U.S. forces in December 2011, when Asaib Ahl al-Haq first announced that it would enter the political mainstream. But its activities have been intensifying ahead of a busy election schedule in the coming year, with provincial elections set for April and parliamentary ones due in early 2014 that will provide an important indicator of where Iraq is headed after the American exit.
The group has a powerful ally in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, who has embraced its entry into politics as a counterweight to the influence of the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a longtime rival who has proved an unreliable partner in the coalition government.
Though Maliki’s aides and Asaib Ahl al-Haq officials deny any formal relationship, they acknowledge friendly relations and don’t discount the possibility that they could strike an electoral pact.
“There is no public alliance, but nothing would be wrong if they have one, and I expect them to do that,” said Ghaith al-Tamimi, a Shiite religious leader who has close ties to both groups and who heads the Center for Religious Rapprochement in Baghdad, an organization promoted by the prime minister. “Maliki needs Shiite figures to split the Sadrists.”