After its creation in 2006, Asaib Ahl al-Haq claimed more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. forces, including some of the most sophisticated roadside bombings of the war and multiple mortar and rocket attacks against U.S. facilities, including the embassy in Baghdad. Though there is no count of the Americans killed by the group, after the defeats inflicted on al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008, U.S. officials identified Asaib Ahl al-Haq as the biggest single threat to U.S. forces.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq was also responsible for the 2007 kidnapping of a British contractor and the deaths in captivity of his four British bodyguards. Peter Moore was freed after negotiations with the U.S. military for the release of Khazali and hundreds of Asaib Ahl al-Haq operatives, an outcome Khazali touted as a major achievement in an interview last month with the Alsumaria TV network.
“This is something we are proud of, because we forced them to negotiate with armed groups, which it is their policy not to do,” he said.
So close is the group’s relationship with Iran that a political role would “enhance Iranian political and religious influence in Iraq and greatly augment Iran’s regional proxy strategy,” according to a report in December by the Institute for the Study of War.
Indeed, said Sam Wyer, the author of the report, it is hard to separate Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s political aspirations from Iran’s regional ambitions. “With this dramatic shift towards politics, they are attempting publicly to frame themselves as something other than an Iranian proxy, but I don’t buy it,” he said.
Iran initially sponsored and funded the group, composed of disgruntled former Sadrists, to establish a more reliably loyal alternative to the mercurial Sadr and his undisciplined Mahdi Army militia, according to U.S. officials. At the time, officials portrayed the group as an Iranian attempt to create an Iraqi version of Hezbollah, which successfully leveraged its part in driving occupying Israeli troops out of Lebanon in 2000 to play a commanding role in Lebanon’s government.
Building on its close relationship with Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq opened an office in Beirut last year, and it is suspected of dispatching volunteers to fight in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that its ambitions extend beyond Iraq.
At a time when Iran’s regional reach and the standing of its ally Hezbollah are threatened by the revolt against Assad, Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s resurgence looks a lot like a renewed attempt to create an alternative vehicle for projecting Iranian influence, said the former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue.
“I see them first and foremost as an Iranian proxy. Their nature is such that I don’t think they ever gave up their aim of being an Iraqi analog to Hezbollah,” he said. “They will always be a danger to kidnap Americans, conduct bombings against U.S. consulates or do other kinds of activities.”
‘It’s just the beginning’
Whether Asaib Ahl al-Haq can build a significant support base in Iraq’s crowded political field is in question, however. In one sign that its efforts have not been productive, the group has decided against fielding candidates in April’s provincial elections, ostensibly to focus on the parliamentary races next year.
“It’s just the beginning,” Khazali told the TV interviewer when challenged on whether the group feared a poor showing.
Lawmaker Sami al-Askari, a member of Maliki’s parliamentary bloc, who led the negotiations with the United States for Khazali’s release and has a close relationship with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, predicted that the group may win “two or three seats” but not enough to secure a post in the government.
The group’s public association with Iran may also work against it. Iraq fought an eight-year war with its neighbor in the 1980s, and Iran’s efforts to influence Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein have intensified the lingering resentment among Shiites almost as much as Sunnis.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq tiptoes around the nature of its relationship with Iran, but it does not deny its sympathy and affiliations. Khazali said in the interview that his reconciliation initiative was not prompted by Iran, but he added: “We welcome the positive interference of neighboring countries.”
Humairi, the cleric who heads the group’s Kadhimiyah office, said funding comes from a variety of religious contributions gathered in mosques, including those provided by Khamenei, the Iranian leader.
He said he would like to see the Iranian system of religious governance applied in Iraq, but only if other Iraqis supported it.
“Iraq is a democracy,” he said, “but if the majority votes for it, why not?”